South Africa

On Cape Town’s road to nowhere

By GroundUp 31 July 2013

Amelia Earnest met some of the people living on the streets of Cape Town. Some of them have been living outside since they were children. The City recently made it harder for them, though. By GROUNDUP.

Gregory and his wife had lived in the same home for twelve years. Returning from a quick outing one day, they found it was gone. Gregory, who describes himself as forty years homeless, had been living in a shelter underneath “the unfinished bridge.” This is the elevated freeway that the City infamously abandoned in 1977, citing a lack of funding.

According to Gregory, city workers began tearing down the informal community sheltered under the cut-off freeway in January or February of 2013. In its place, construction crews built a parking lot to house buses for the City’s new Integrated Rapid Transit (IRT) project.

Photo: The security people installed sharp rocks in the early months of 2013 to deter street people from sleeping under the freeway.

Outside the perimeter of the bus lot, workers constructed a perplexing installation – a sprawling grid of tightly spaced rocks, planted vertically in the cement. The rocks, each around 30cm high, serve no obvious aesthetic or functional purpose.

Photo: To make money during the day, Gregory watches cars in the same parking lot where he sleeps at night.

“I saw them [the rocks], and I knew they were there to make people not sleep there,” Gregory said.

Gregory was right.

“The concept of the vertical planted rocks is unique in a way to curb the ongoing saga of having homeless individuals not utilise the flat areas around the depot to sleep upon or build shelters thereon,” stated Marc Truss, Chief Executive of the Green Point City Improvement District (CID), via email.

Truss acknowledged the experimental nature of the project: “It [the rock installation] is still to be tried and tested in the South African climate, taking into account the challenges that one faces with the homeless fraternity.”

According to Truss, the area under the unfinished freeway is under the jurisdiction of the City’s Road department and the construction there was a part of the City’s IRT rollout.

Tyrone, another former resident of the settlement under the unfinished bridge, said he remembered when the public area was a carwash and then afterwards when street people began settling in the space.

Photo: Tyrone, who depends on shelters for clothing and food, remembers when the space under the freeway was a community of street people.

“People used to stay here, people of all kinds,” Tyrone said, picking his way carefully over the sharp rocks. “There was a shanty here, drugs, prostitutes, everything. Then they [CID workers] came through and they moved everybody out.”

Tyrone said that the government offered displaced street people a “shack and an outside bathroom far away in the middle of nowhere.”

Many, like Gregory, did not accept the offer.

Unable to rebuild, Gregory did what any evicted resident would do. He downgraded. Gregory’s new home is a clearing in the landscaping off the curb of the traffic department’s parking lot. When he peeks over the nearby containment wall of Helen Suzman Boulevard, he can still see his old home.

Photo: Gregory’s new, unsheltered home off the side of Helen Suzman Boulevard.

Though The Haven Night Shelter, the Salvation Army, and several other shelters are nearby, Gregory says he can get better food for the R20 nightly fee than what the shelters serve. So, since moving from under the bridge, Gregory has endured Cape Town’s winter in the open.

“How was the rain last night?” Tyrone asked.

“Not good, but we have the plastics…” replied Gregory, gesturing toward a heap of tarps piled in the middle of the dirt clearing.

For many, the former unfinished bridge community remains a hub in the complex web of connections between street people. Like Tyrone and Gregory, Jeremy and Shahied met while living under the unfinished bridge. Both now in their mid-twenties, they spent their childhood in its informal community. Jeremy’s family was close to Tyrone when he was young, and his brother has a child with Shahied’s sister.