“Nothing is done for the poor homeless community of Cape Town, nothing at all.”
That’s the lament of Martin Moses, a 56-year-old homeless man who’s been living on the streets for 21 years.
We met him on a street corner in Green Point, just a few metres from The Haven Night Shelter, an organisation that provides social services and temporary accommodation for people coming off the streets.
He’s one of several homeless men, women and children lining the pavement outside the shelter. Earlier this month, the area was a ghost town after being “swept clean” by law enforcement officers. But many of the homeless have returned as The Haven serves free meals to those still living on the street.
Moses says the homeless are often mistreated by law enforcement officers and “get chased from one corner to the other”.
“The way some of us have been manhandled and physically beaten by police officers and securities… You should go to the police station and hear about cases like that or talk to the others living on the street here. It’s too many and nothing has been done about it.”
According to City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for Safety and Security JP Smith, the city is not aware of “any such allegations” against law enforcement staff.
“If indeed this is true, then it amounts to assault,” said Smith.
“The city takes such allegations seriously and would advise any member of the public to lay a charge with the South African Police Service, as it would constitute a criminal offence.”
Nonetheless, according to Moses’ account, law enforcement often comes “without a warning” and not only removes those sleeping on the streets, but takes their personal property as well.
“They take your bedding, your stuff and you can’t stop them because it’s against the law to stand up against law enforcement or police, so what do you do? You stay clear, you let them. Sometimes you fight for your things, but most of the time, you are on the losing side.”
In response, Smith said the City of Cape Town staff are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct, which includes treating every person with dignity, irrespective of circumstances.
“All staff are briefed beforehand and they know not to remove personal belongings, documents, bedding or medication. If any person believes that a law enforcement officer acted contrary to this, they can report the matter to the South African Police Service for investigation,” he reiterated.
Moses owns a green tent which he folds up during the day. He hides his clothing, bedding and his most precious belongings inside it. It’s his way of making sure law enforcement doesn’t take his property.
“Through my years on the streets, I’ve learnt to be a little more wise,” he said, chuckling and patting the green mound he was seated on.
The City of Cape Town came under scrutiny last month after news broke that it was enforcing a by-law that enables street dwellers to be issued with fines. Moses says he’s been fined more than once. The last fine he received was on 13 July for R500. He showed Daily Maverick the slip of paper which cites his violation as “littering and dumping”.
“They come and hand out fines here as if we can afford to pay it. We can’t even afford a decent meal, but they come around and they do this, and we have to just accept it like that, as it is.”
Hassan Khan, the CEO of the Haven says he is not aware of anyone who has been manhandled or fined, but the Haven is willing to assist if any incidents have occurred.
“Please refer anyone who was manhandled to the Haven. We will help them make a charge,” said Khan.
“We will help anyone who was fined at court.”
Yet Moses feels that the city is treating homelessness as a crime.
“They are telling us it’s illegal to have nowhere to go, to have no one to go to.”
He says that despite his perils with law enforcement, the hardest part about living on the streets is being alone.
“Not having someone, I feel dead inside.
“Having no one to share things with just makes you think of your past and where you’ve gone wrong.”
But Moses says that music eases the pain of living on the street.
“I love music, I live for music. I’ll sometimes sing myself to sleep, and I always wake up with a song,” he says, smiling.
He also plays guitar, but because of his circumstances he doesn’t own one.
“If I had a guitar, I would be able to write some of my music down.”
When he’s not serenading passers-by, a typical day for Moses involves getting money and supplies to get through the day.
“I take a walk sometimes, to see if I can get some monies or whatever, just to make it through the day and most of the stuff that’s needed like sugar, coffee, bread and smokes.”
He says there is a stigma against street dwellers.
“They think we’re lazy. It’s not that we’re lazy and don’t want to do something, it’s that we haven’t been given the chance to.”
He believes the government should do more to ensure that citizens on the street find a place they can call home.
“It is our birthright, to own a piece of land, in our country of birth,” he said.
When asked whether he has a home or a family to return to, Moses, who spent 12 years in prison, says he feels too much guilt to live permanently with his loved ones.
“I stabbed my father for hitting my mom, and that’s how I ended up in prison,” he explained.
“Sometimes I phone them, sometimes I would drive past there with friends and just pop in, but I feel that by going home, I won’t be doing the right thing.”
Moses says he wants things to change but believes he will probably die on the streets.
“That’s about it. Life on the side-walk of the city.” DM
"If a man seeks from the good life anything beyond itself, it is not the good life he is seeking" ~ Plotinus