Provinces rush to house the homeless as lockdown hits

A homeless couple sleep on the pavement (sidewalk) on a cardboard “mattress” hidden under a mauve blanket on a cold winter's morning (Photo: Rodger Shagam/Gallo)

Homeless people have been encouraged to move to temporary shelters during the Covid-19 lockdown. It's still unclear, however, how and whether the plan will work. By Sandisiwe Shoba, Estelle Ellis, Bheki Simelane and Greg Nicolson

Peter Moremi sat on a pavement in Linden’s Fourth Avenue, his life’s belongings stored in two bags.

“I do worry. We need to know how you get infected,” he said on Thursday, hours before South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown would come into effect.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown, he briefly mentioned in his address on Monday that temporary shelters must be identified to accommodate homeless people for at least 21 days.

Provincial and municipal governments across the country have been scrambling to put Ramaphosa’s order into effect but questions remain over how South Africa’s homeless will be treated.

Moremi is homeless and survives on donations. He wasn’t sure how he would get a meal during the lockdown but was cautious about being isolated with other homeless people, particularly those with drug and alcohol addictions and mental illnesses.

Gauteng’s acting Social Development MEC Panyaza Lesufi toured the province on Thursday and met with the homeless in the Johannesburg and Tshwane CBDs, the Vaal and West Rand to persuade them to move into shelters.

“That’s the only way to speak to them, persuade them,” he told Power 98.7 on Friday morning.

“They really feel neglected, unattended and that their rights are violated. They say, ‘These are our homes, don’t force us if you want us to go to those facilities, just notify us, allow us to apply our minds and if we want to come, we’ll come,’” said Lesufi.

The Gauteng government is working with 241 NGOs and facilities that have the capacity to house the homeless during the lockdown. Thirty boarding schools have agreed to host the homeless if shelters are full, said Lesufi.

In a briefing on Wednesday, he said the government would provide food and clothing to those who moved willingly.

According to regulations issued in terms of the Disaster Management Act, during the lockdown period, “a person refusing to be evacuated from any place subject to lockdown, may be evacuated by an enforcement officer to a temporary shelter if such action is necessary for the preservation of life”.

The regulations say that the state shall identify “temporary shelters that meet the necessary hygiene standards for homeless people”.

Brian Msimang, 32, and Bongani Tsabedze, 27, live behind the toilets at the Lenasia taxi rank. They hadn’t heard about the government’s plans to move the homeless into shelters, but, both being nyaope addicts, they didn’t think they would be able to survive if they had to go without drugs in an NGO or school.

Lesufi said on Friday morning that the government would use the 21-day lockdown to try to provide the homeless with “soft skills” to help them integrate back into their families and communities.

As Daily Maverick was speaking to Msimang and Tsabedze on Thursday, another homeless man arrived from Orange Farm. He said the government had been moving the homeless into shelters and he fled to Lenasia because he’d heard of people starving in the past when the government “rescued” them.

In the Western Cape, the City of Cape Town said that they were still finalising “additional temporary shelter options,” according to Community Services and Health Mayoral Committee Member Zahid Badroodien on Thursday afternoon.

According to a press statement released later that evening, the metropolitan municipality announced that Paint City, a warehouse in Bellville, was one of the shelter facilities for both the shutdown period and the foreseeable future.

According to Badroodien, the facility can only accommodate 200 people due to social distancing. On Friday morning, Badroodien said the City of Cape Town’s safety and security unit would likely assist with transporting the homeless to temporary shelter. This should be finalised by the end of day on Friday.

“It will provide the city’s homeless with sanitation and electrical provision, and an opportunity to safely self-isolate in a protected environment,” the statement read, although there was no clarity on food provision.

Cape Town has over 7,000 homeless people.

The city is also expanding the “safe space” under the Culemborg bridge in the city’s centre to have roughly 200 plus beds. Existing shelters have been asked to identify vacant land next to their facilities where prefabs can be set up for extra beds and negotiations are under way with Western Cape Province to use some of its buildings. All these plans are still being finalised.

Concerns have been raised that some homeless people may refuse to enter shelters, as is already common.

Archive Photo: People line up outside the Haven Shelter in Green Point, Cape Town, on 6 June 2019. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

Cape Town Safety and Security Mayoral Committee Member,  JP Smith said agencies would work in a “supporting role” to SAPS in terms of enforcing the provisions of the lockdown.

The city’s law enforcement agencies have been criticised in the past for issuing fines and mistreating street dwellers. There is currently an order against the City of Cape Town prohibiting them from fining the homeless, pending a review hearing on the constitutionality of two of the city’s by-laws.

During a digital press conference on Covid-19, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said the city would be partnering with existing shelter networks.

The Haven Night Shelter, the largest shelter network in the Western Cape is already full. According to CEO, Hassan Khan, the shelters accommodate more than 1,300 people in total.

“Where people are able to go to family, we fill the bed immediately with other homeless persons,” said Khan.

As lockdown approaches, Khan said the shelters are facing challenges with food supplies and sanitation provisions.

He called on the public to make donations: foam cups, sanitising liquid or wet wipes, to ensure they could keep providing meals safely and hygienically.

“Where we can’t accept applicants due to lack of a bed we will continue to provide meals, clothing, soap etc for as long as we can.”

Khan said shelter fees would be reduced for the time being.

Isolation areas have also been allocated in the shelters, through which the Haven will “follow the Health Guidelines for testing and quarantine when necessary,” said Khan

Venetia Orgill, an activist who feeds close to 200 homeless persons at the Arch in Company Gardens, was worried that some of Cape Town’s homeless that she interacted with had no clue that a lockdown was happening or that there was a Covid-19 outbreak.

She was also concerned that some homeless people might fall through the cracks, where they don’t get shelter or health care

“When this virus is over, we’re going to find bodies lying under trees,” warned Orgill.

U-turn Homeless Ministries said things were carrying on as usual at their service centre on Friday, although they’re serving more than double the number of people than usual and have had to stagger meals to ensure social distancing.

Although they have permission to keep their doors open, U-Turn is unclear on the role it’s meant to play during the lockdown. For now, they’ve asked the public to donate non-perishable food and supplies for activity packs. The packs are meant to be a therapeutic outlet, especially for those dealing with addiction issues and mental health.

“When everyone is shunted into a place of lockdown, with people they might not have been on the street with, or whatever it might be, it’s potentially an explosive situation.”

The National Homeless Network, a coalition of homeless organisations across eight provinces, said most of their shelters were full in the Free State, Western Cape KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

According to the Network’s Wayne Renkin, this is partly due to social distancing practices: “Some shelters and safe sleeping spaces have reduced their numbers to ensure distance as much as possible,” he told Daily Maverick.

In Durban, a facility was going to open to house more than 800 people during the lockdown, but according to Renkin, plans were halted when the landlord of the building feared “jeopardising their reputation” by accommodating street dwellers.

“In Bloemfontein relevant NGOs met the city, just to be told, as late as yesterday afternoon, that the city is waiting for a mandate for the province – there is no action, therefore,” said Renkin

“As local municipalities struggle to find ways to support homeless persons at this time, there seems to be a lack of clear direction and support at a national level, with more questions than answers, hours before lockdown.”

Plans to shelter the homeless in the Eastern Cape seem to be under way.

Kupido Baron, spokesperson for the joint operations centre in Nelson Mandela Bay, said Walmer Town Hall, Daku Hall, NU2 Motherwell, Jaman Hall and Babs Madlakane Hall have been identified as the areas where homeless people will be moved to.

“Since we are in a race against time since the regulations were issued late yesterday afternoon, we might not have all the homeless people in shelters by the time the lockdown starts. However, we set ourselves a deadline to ensure that they are moved to the facilities during the day tomorrow,” said Baron.

In a statement, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane said all destitute people in the province will have shelter and hygiene essentials during the lockdown.

At a press briefing on Thursday the MEC for Social Development, Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi, said several shelters have been identified in the OR Tambo District where families can access emergency assistance and shelter. She said families who need emergency assistance will be able to access up to three food parcels.

The shelters identified by Mani-Lusithi are Goso Forest in Ingquza, Port St John’s in Mthumbana, Luxolweni Nyandeni in Mzomtsha and SOS Children’s Home in King Sabatha Dalindyebo municipality, Ikwhezi lokusa, Khanyisa, Thembelistha and the former TB hospital, the Dr. Sangoni Centre. The Mhlontlo Sinelitha rehabilitation centre in Tsolo has also been identified as an emergency shelter. DM



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