Caroline Richards first saw homelessness in Zimbabwe in the nation’s capital, Harare. As a 19-year-old girl from the western United States, she had never witnessed anything like it before. “Some people had large tumors on their legs, or others were blind,” she said. “I was shocked when I first saw a tumor on someone’s leg that was around the size of a cantaloupe. I had never seen [anything] like that.” Richards left her home state of Utah in March 2016 to spend 18 months in Zimbabwe as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While there, she often interacted with the locals, entered their homes and saw how they lived.
Zimbabwe is a nation in sub-Saharan Africa with a population of over 14.8 million people, located south of Zambia and Malawi. More than 72% of the population lives below the poverty line, a rate that has unfortunately worsened over the years. Homelessness in Zimbabwe is an ongoing crisis, with the national housing shortage estimated at more than 1 million and over 1.2 million people on the government’s national housing waiting list. From Richards’ perspective, homelessness in Zimbabwe is often caused by a physical inability, unlike homelessness in the United States. “Most of the homelessness I saw was because of physical ailment or impairment,” she said. “There are some people who just haven’t been able to make it in the economy because every odd is against them.”
Unemployment and Homelessness
It is reported that the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe is as high as 90%. Richards said she thinks this is a major contributor to homelessness in Zimbabwe. “The government doesn’t take as good of care of the Zimbabwean people as they should. The economy is in disarray all of the time which makes it difficult for the people to make ends meet,” she said. For example, in 2005, the government of Zimbabwe started a campaign, “Operation Restore Order,” to destroy slums across the country, leaving 700,000 people homeless. Former President Robert Mugabe and his government officials claimed the operation was a crackdown against illegal housing. The campaign was met with strong condemnation from several groups and organizations, including the United Nations.
A Dense Population
Richards added that the housing shortage is also due to Zimbabwe being densely populated. “There are a lot of people in small quarters,” she said. “Because of the poor economy, it’s not uncommon for families to rent one room from a house with a communal bathroom shared with 4-6 families because that’s all they can afford.”
Richards described the Zimbabwean homes she entered as “made of concrete” and “well-kept.” Since many houses throughout the country don’t have electricity, they leave their windows open to let in natural light. Throughout her time in Zimbabwe, Richards lived in some of the smaller rural areas and shared homes with local Zimbabweans. Though she often witnessed the negative impact of homelessness on these citizens, she also learned from how they lived. “Living in Zimbabwe taught me that it’s possible to live comfortably in the most humble of circumstances,” she reflected. “Zimbabweans have very impressive hygiene, and even if a whole family of 6 was living in one little room, it would be perfectly clean, all their clothes would be ironed, and the children bathed. They made the most out of what they had and are creative in the things they do to make ends meet.”
Help for the Homeless
Though housing shortages and homelessness in Zimbabwe are still very prevalent, some organizations are striving to eliminate them. Homeless International, The Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation and the Dialogue on Shelter for the Homeless in Zimbabwe Trust are working together to address issues of homelessness in Zimbabwe, particularly low-income housing. In partnership with the city of Harare, the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation and the Dialogue on Shelter, which acts as the technical partner for the Federation, are working on the Harare Slum Upgrading Project. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project began in 2010 as a pilot project to accommodate 16 families and provide infrastructural services for 480 families in a certain Zimbabwean suburb. The project is still ongoing and impacts many community members, seeking to improve their living conditions. Homelessness in Zimbabwe is still a serious problem, but these and other organizations are doing their part to conquer it.
– Emma Benson