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600,000 homeless people on the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria? Why this claim is flawed

Independent Online, a website by a national media group in South Africa, recently made this eye-catching claim. Because data informs how resources are shared out, we took a closer look.

This article is more than 1 year old

  • Homeless Solutions’ claim is not based on evidence, but on what a representative told Africa Check was “experience and observation”.

  • The figure is inconsistent with various estimates and a recent attempt to count all street-homeless people in the City of Tshwane (Pretoria).

  • Accurate data on homelessness is important, says one expert, because it affects how the government budgets and allocates services.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as governments worldwide scrambled to provide shelter for people on the streets, South Africa’s Gauteng province realised it had underestimated the number of homeless people within its jurisdiction.

In April 2020, then-member of the executive council Panyaza Lesufi was quoted as saying that the province had updated its estimate to 50,000 homeless people in Gauteng, including 15,000 in the City of Johannesburg and 10,000 in the City of Tshwane, which includes Pretoria.

However, a recent article on the Independent Online (IOL) website claims that there are a “confirmed” 600,000 homeless people living on the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria – 24 times higher than the provincial government’s early-pandemic estimate for the two cities. Can this be true?

Claim based on ‘experience and observation’

The figure was attributed to Sechaba Potse, the administrator of Homeless Solutions, a non-profit organisation based in Pretoria.

We asked Potse for the source of the claim. He sent us a link to a 2022 opinion piece which contains an estimate of between 100,000 and 200,000 homeless people in the country. “The actual figures are believed to be much higher due to the high mobility and transient nature of members of the homeless population,” the authors wrote.

Potse said government estimates tended to miss homeless people who “live under the radar out of shame of being known”. For example, he knew of “professionals with families” who were unlikely to show up in the statistics, he said.

My organisation and I, as a homeless individual who works with the homeless community, and through experience and observations, have come to a conclusion that the numbers are more than what they [the government] show or tell us.”

Potse said he would stick to his estimate of 600,000 until someone proved him wrong “provided anybody is up for it”.

When is someone considered homeless?

Sipho Stuurman, spokesperson for the City of Tshwane, told Africa Check that it was difficult to determine the number of homeless people, partly because “there is still no consensus on who the homeless are”.

In its policy, the metropolitan municipality, which includes Pretoria, had adopted a definition of street homelessness that excluded “people living in informal settlements or substandard housing”.

Prof Stephan de Beer is the director of the Centre for Faith and Community at the University of Pretoria, which houses the Unit for Street Homelessness.

He said the number of homeless people depended on the definition. “There could be 600,000 [homeless people in Pretoria and Johannesburg] if this includes people living on the streets, in bad buildings, backyard dwellings or informal settlements.”

But, said De Beer, there were “definitely not” 600,000 people living on the streets of the two cities.

Note: Because the claim refers to people “living on the streets”, we have focused on street homelessness in this fact-check.

Various estimates nowhere near 600,000

As Homeless Solutions’ claim is not based on verifiable evidence, we looked for other possible data sources. Based on the available estimates, the figure in the claim seems unlikely:




Where they say they got it





Department of Social Development, Gauteng

Own estimate based on outreach programmes to hotspots

The province prioritises homeless people who live on the streets – “occupying and sleeping in vehicles, [under] bridges, [in] parks and abandoned buildings or any place”.



Tweet by former City of Tshwane executive mayor Randall Williams

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA)

However, Stats SA says its latest available data for the City of Tshwane is from the 2011 Census, which shows there were 4,343 homeless people in the city.



Stats SA


One of the limitations of the data is the “highly mobile nature” of the homeless population. The release of the Census 2022 results is expected in the second quarter of 2023.




Johannesburg Homelessness Network, referenced in Daily Maverick

Department of Social Development, Gauteng

However, the provincial department told Africa Check its latest estimate for Johannesburg is 15,000.



Department of Social Development, Gauteng

Own estimate based on outreach programmes to hotspots

See above.



Stats SA


See above.




Department of Social Development, Gauteng

Own estimate based on outreach programmes to hotspots

See above.



Stats SA


See above.

6,000 to 12,000


Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Own estimate based on HSRC survey


The estimate is for the adult street-homeless population.

South Africa

100,000 to 200,000



Own estimate based on HSRC survey


These are “adults and children who live on the streets full-time, in true homelessness or ‘rooflessness’ – the condition of routinely sleeping on the streets without regular access to shelter”.

Sources: Khanyisile Mathebula, director for special needs and services to families, Gauteng department of social development; Sipho Stuurman, divisional head of mayoral public and media relations, City of Tshwane; Stats SA; Mary Gillett-de Klerk, coordinator of the Johannesburg Homelessness Network; HSRC. Note: The City of Johannesburg referred us to the provincial department of social development

A recent count of the homeless people in Pretoria

In October 2022, the Unit for Street Homelessness at the University of Pretoria and its partners attempted to count all street-homeless people in the City of Tshwane.

These are people who live “on pavements, under bridges, in bushes or next to rivers or spruits; who fall outside a viable social network of assistance, and who are therefore not able to provide themselves with shelter at a given time or place”. 

People living in homeless shelters on a given night were also counted.

“The aim was to enumerate as accurately as possible all homeless persons in Pretoria. We counted 4,059 people … We are making provision for a 10% to 15% undercount,” De Beer told Africa Check.

Limitations of the data included that homeless people might have been missed on the night of the count because they were sometimes nomadic or their sleeping places were hidden from sight.The geographical size of Tshwane presented challenges in terms of reaching every corner,” De Beer said.

Despite these limitations, De Beer said the results of the Tshwane Homeless Count showed how unlikely it was that there were 600,000 street-homeless people in Pretoria and Johannesburg. “If we only enumerated 4,059 people in Tshwane, and with provision for a 10% to 15% undercount – let’s say 4,500 people – it should indicate how erroneous that figure (600,000) is.”

Why accurate homelessness data matters

Data informed government budgets and the nature and distribution of homeless shelters and services across a city, De Beer said. 

“The overall number of homeless people is important. But what is even more important is the details of the data [demographic details such as age and gender] once analysed.”

This would allow collaborators to be more strategic. “For example, if you know there are 200 women on the streets, shelter provision should be planned around that.”

Conclusion: Wrong to claim that a ‘confirmed’ 600,000 homeless people live on the streets of two major cities in South Africa

An organisation that provides services to homeless people has claimed there are a “confirmed” 600,000 people living on the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria. This figure was picked up by national media in the country.

But the claim was not based on any verifiable evidence and it was incorrect to say that the figure had been confirmed.

Although recent data is limited, and the homeless population has been described as difficult to count, available information makes a figure as high as 600,000 street-homeless people very unlikely.

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