South Africa

South Africa

Street Life: Joburg homeless face cruel, cold, blanket-less nights

Street Life: Joburg homeless face cruel, cold, blanket-less nights

As temperatures in Johannesburg drop below freezing, the city's homeless are accusing the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) of confiscating their blankets in the early hours of the morning. GREG NICOLSON goes in search of the cold characters making the allegations, the vulnerable without a blanket for warmth.

“Feels like you want to die,” says 25-year-old Sonya, sitting in the central bus terminal, Gandhi Square. She’s wearing cargo pants, a jacket and her head is covered for warmth. She’s polite, only speaking when she has something to say.

Sonya has been on the streets for 13 years, leaving her Randfontein home when her mother died. In the last month, the JMPD have come four times to the Braamfontein hill where she sleeps, to confiscate blankets from the homeless, she says. It’s always late at night or early in the morning.“They just say they don’t want to see us again. But where must we go?” They don’t come in summer, only winter. “And no one does anything about it.”

Sonya (those we spoke to didn’t want their surnames published) was one of a number of Johannesburg’s homeless Daily Maverick interviewed on Tuesday about the Metro Cops confiscating blankets. On the footpath, in doorways, down roads and around parks, it’s not hard to find those who sleep on the streets. They all told a similar story.

JMPD spokesperson Wayne Minaar says the allegations are unsubstantiated and without proof. “It’s not the policy of the JMPD to take blankets off people.” He said a formal complaint needed to be lodged and evidence (names of officers, vehicle registrations) filed for the Metro Police to investigate. Without proof, anyone can make any sort of allegation, he said. Against the JMPD there are many.

After searching the bins outside the South Gauteng High Court, 25-year-old Siyabonga leaves his recycling cart to smoke a cigarette. He lives on the streets in town and the JMPD came last month, he says. “They want to slap us when we don’t want them to take our blankets.” He pauses. “It’s cold these days.” Tonight it’s supposed to be -3° Celsius.

In Braamfontein, only blocks away from the trendy Neighbourgoods Market, a group of young boys call a footpath home. They sit around a fire; some sniffing glue. Many are under 18, a close group of street kids. Worn mattresses rest nearby on the ground blackened by ashes. The Metros took some of their blankets on Monday night, around 12am, they say. Some of the boys took their blankets and ran.

A JMPD car rolls past and idles to see who the boys are speaking to. “He kicked all of us… They are taking the law into their own hands. They will beat you,” says a boy, looking at the cop. The JMPD have told them they’re not wanted in the streets. They must go back home.

Back on the Braamfontein hill near where Sonya sleeps, Christopher, 22, sits with another man who is rolling a joint by the fire. “Hamba,” Christopher barks at his companion, who doesn’t want to talk. Torn cardboard boxes litter the grass and the footpath is covered in broken glass. Two days ago, between 3am and 4am, the Metros came with a truck to confiscate blankets, he says.

Over in Hillbrow, resident and social worker Nigel Branken has started a campaign to stop the abuse of homeless people and confiscating of blankets. “We think it is inhumane, degrading, unethical, illegal, unconstitutional and a violation of several rights for the City of Johannesburg to take blankets, clothing and other possessions away from the homeless in Hillbrow, especially at a time when we are about to have a cold front,” he wrote in a letter to the City in June.

“The removal of blankets amounts to a constructive eviction. No eviction is permitted of any person in terms of our Constitution without a valid court order. In addition, the City of Johannesburg, as a member of the state, has a constitutional responsibility to respect, protect, promote and fulfil these rights,” he continued. He submitted a petition asking the City to provide adequate housing and shelters. He also asked the Metro Cops to distribute new blankets to the homeless.

Branken recorded interviews with some of Hillbrow’s homeless. They say Metro Cops come early in the morning. They take blankets, sometimes clothes and mattresses, throw them on a truck, and sometimes burn them. The interviews are available online and each subject comes to the same conclusion – the City doesn’t want them on the streets.

To emphasise his point, Branken also got comments from long-serving community workers Johan Robyn from the Outreach Foundation and Sam Mugambe from Paballo ya Batho, who describe a sort of charity in reverse: every year, NGOs, churches and student groups donate blankets to the homeless in winter, and every winter the JMPD regularly take them away.

In its 2040 Vision, the City of Joburg commits to improving the livelihoods of the marginalised. It is also responsible for a number of shelters for the homeless. But many on the streets, however, say the City isn’t doing enough. If they can’t afford to go to the shelters or they’re full, they have to stay on the streets. During last year’s “Operation Clean Sweep”, when the JMPD pushed informal traders off the streets, the City faced allegations of abusing its poorest residents in a bid for a clean and safe city.

“The moral of the story is that the City of Jozi doesn’t really look out for [the homeless],” says Donovan, who spent 12 years on the streets before recently finding somewhere to stay in Westbury. The tall, former beggar, known by many around Melville, is sitting in Ghandi Square after seeing a doctor for problems related to alcohol addiction. “What they’re doing is unjust and unfair. People kill for blankets. They rob you.”

He says the churches do a good job but they can’t provide for everyone.”Food is not a problem. Thank God, you can always get food.” Staying warm is more difficult. “You have no idea. Our blankets and jackets are our prized possessions,” says Donovan.

For the first two nights trying to sleep outside without a blanket in winter, you shudder uncontrollably. On the third night, you’ll finally sleep, exhausted, says Donovan. But by then, things can get dire. He’s seen guys so desperate to keep warm that they’ll urinate on themselves, and when the liquid chills they’ll be even colder.

“Do you know how many guys we’ve seen die?” he asks, with another freezing night for many on the way. DM

Read more:

  • Joburg homeless accuse JMPD of abuse of power in eNCA

Photo: Homeless residents of Johannesburg warm themselves around a fire on Tuesday night as a cold front hits the city. (Greg Nicolson)


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