Street dreamers: Rebuilding broken lives in ‘Poison City’

Street dreamers: Rebuilding broken lives in ‘Poison City’
Sandile and friends soak up the evening before they have to report to the dorms for roll call at the Denis Hurley Centre. The centre in Durban is a haven for the homeless and has set up shelters for 1,700 of the city’s homeless. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

How do the vulnerable survive lockdown? Without television or a radio, isolated from friends and family and with few prospects to look forward to on the other side of the quarantine? There is no return to ‘normal’ for the street sleepers of Durban.

In a 2016 survey, it was estimated that there were 2,000 people living on the streets and in the shelters of the Durban CBD.

The majority of these are young men who came to the city to find work… many of them are escaping dire situations at home, where broken families, a lack of opportunity, gangsterism and hopelessness forced them to run away to the big city.

But the city is a barren and unforgiving place. 

Vulnerable women are at risk of being trapped in sex work, children are used as pawns – begging for money at every street corner, and everyone on the street faces the lethal lure of whoonga. Just one hit and your life is in the hands of the devil.

Whoonga is a street drug that has for a long time been running rampant in the gullies of “Poison City”. It’s a deadly concoction of brown heroin and rat poison that hooks users in a delirious cycle of pain and pleasure. 

The city has long struggled to find solutions for this drifting population of street dreamers. Many have high hopes and ambitions despite their circumstances… most have a history of abuse and almost everyone I’ve met has a strong connection with the almighty. Faith that everything will be okay in the end. 

What the Covid-19 lockdown has proven is that there is an incredible network of people and organisations fighting for the basic human rights and protection of these most vulnerable and outcast citizens of our city.

At the forefront of this battle is the Denis Hurley Centre, which is situated in the deepest heart of the city – between the Emmanuel Cathedral, the Grey Street Mosque and the Victoria Street Market. 

Long before the outbreak, the Denis Hurley Centre was providing 300 meals a day to the homeless, running a specialised clinic attuned to the health conditions and needs of the vulnerable, and leading the campaign to address homelessness in the city. 

In just four days after President Cyril Ramaphosa made the announcement of national lockdown, a special task team spearheaded by Raymond Perrier, director of the Denis Hurley Centre, set up shelters for 1,700 of Durban’s homeless. It was the swiftest response in any of SA’s major cities. 

“The response has been a fantastic collaboration between senior government officials, key NGOs, faith groups, academics and corporate representatives,” says Perrier from his office in the DHC. “We were able to combine expert knowledge and infrastructure with political will and resources to achieve something astonishing.”

News spreads fast on the streets and over 2,000 street people turned up for the screening operation at the Durban Exhibition Centre in the days after the announcement. These people were meticulously tested for Covid-19 symptoms and other health issues (such as TB) and strategically placed at eight emergency shelters around the city.  

Overall, there are five camps in the CBD and three in the suburbs. Three of these are brick and mortar while the rest are emergency marquees. The people are grouped according to age, gender and health status. Every homeless person who sought shelter, 1,700 in total, has been given a mattress, a blanket, three meals a day and access to medical and psychological care for the entire lockdown period.

The shelters are staffed with security and site managers, they have safe open spaces and protection from the elements. The homeless are free to leave at any point, but not to return… each community effectively quarantined from the outside world

Although there have been attempts to help those residing in the infamous Albert “Whoonga” Park area, where 400 of the city’s heaviest drug users reside, the people were found to be uncontainable and uncontrollable. There have however been efforts to provide these people with food and shelter. 

“In the first few days, people were restless,” says Perrier. “Some left the camps and others were struggling with withdrawals as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs dried up. A lot of people are going to come clean by accident. But others have seen this as a chance to quit drugs, to rest and contemplate their lives. It is an opportunity for them.”

Approximately 100 elderly and high-care men were placed at the Denis Hurley Centre, “The Hilton” of shelters as described by Perrier. Another 100 men were placed in emergency camps outside the Durban Jewish Club near the beachfront, also under management of the Denis Hurley Centre. Here’s a collection of stories from these two shelters, memoirs from the most marginalised experiencing the Covid-19 lockdown. 


Rasta is at the Durban Jewish Club homeless camp during the Covid-19 national lockdown. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Rasta is at the Durban Jewish Club homeless camp during the Covid-19 national lockdown. Although one of the youngsters, Rasta is a leader and facilitator at the camp. He keeps the peace and inspires others with his ideas and poetry. 

“I used to spend my days on the beachfront making sand art, I call it ‘Ocean in a Bottle’. When I get time I also write songs and poetry. I have these two notebooks full of my writings. In my poems, I talk about things I’ve been through… this song here is about feelings and addiction.

“I grew up in Mariannhill, but there were problems at home so that’s why I came to the city. I came to town with one bag of clothes; I didn’t even have a blanket. One day I went for a swim in the sea and I asked some guys to watch my bag… but when I got out of the sea they’d run away with my things, so I was left with nothing but my trunks.  Luckily I met a guy called Senzo and he gave me a T-shirt and I slowly found a way to live. 

“I was scared of the influencers, I don’t take drugs. One day I saw this guy making sand art in bottles – he was a white guy from Cape Town. So I tried it as well. I practised and practised until I got better and I started getting some compliments. I worked out how to make patterns with the different colour sand. I tried to do something different – I was the first one to make Zulu patterns and put artificial plants in my bottles so that they last. I don’t put fish in my bottles like some of the other people because I think it’s not right. Sometimes the security guards smash my artwork because you’re not allowed to sell on the beachfront without a permit.

“Before lockdown, I was selling my artwork for R50 a bottle and more. People know me – I even get orders sometimes.

“This coronavirus stopped me in my way. My business was growing, but I’m worried it will be finished when I get out. 

“I just want to make my family proud. I don’t want to go home until I’ve made something of my life.”


Sandile is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless people. He has a talent for singing and songwriting and has high
hopes of a career in the creative world after lockdown. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Sandile is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless people. He has a wonderful talent for singing and songwriting and has high hopes of a career in the creative world after lockdown. He loves to play soccer in the churchyard and give inspirational speeches to anyone who has time to listen.

“I never went to school, I never had a chance to learn. Everything I know I have learnt on the street. I never liked to be a criminal, but my family never gave me the love that each and every child should have.

“So I smoked drugs. I tried to hang myself but it never killed me. Sometimes I feel lonely, I feel hurt, it’s like I don’t exist.

“If you call your child a dog, he will become a criminal. It’s painful when I see people afraid of me. I’m a human too.

“I was made to be a servant of God. But I’ve dwelled in places I shouldn’t have. If I could’ve had a parent’s love I wouldn’t have misused it. I can’t be a child again. I can’t return to my mother’s womb. The street is not good, I don’t like this life. You experience a lot of things. You learn bad. I came to the city when I was 13 and I ended up doing a lot of gangster sh*t. Robbing. If you smoke whoonga you feel high. I did more ’till I got punished.

“Spilling blood is not nice… but the situation is forcing me to do these things. 

“I’m originally from the Mthethwa King’s area near Richards Bay. Right now, I have no birth certificate. No ID. I’m a songwriter, director, musician. A song knows how to heal wounds. I want to write movies. But I have nobody to help me reach my goals. It’s painful to sit here and wait for people to serve me. I want to take care of myself.

“There are stories on the streets. Talents. People here are gifted.

“Whoonga is the biggest problem. Most of the people doing the crimes are on whoonga… but you can’t always blame the drug.

“I have spilled blood, but God gave me mercy.

“I went to prison and learned to control my emotions. To take time to make decisions. To respect different types of people. I don’t have that anger anymore. There were 12 of us in my crew and I am the only one who survived. 

“I was chosen to raise my voice for those who are not heard. I want to lead by example. There’s no more blood I have to spill.”


JP is at the Durban Jewish Club homeless camp during the Covid-19 national lockdown. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

JP is at the Durban Jewish Club homeless camp during the Covid-19 national lockdown. He spends his days playing cricket and hanging out with his childhood friend, Storm, and his new best friend, Marshall.

“I usually live on Point Road and I swim in the sea every day. After lockdown I just want to get back in the sea. My dream is to become a lifeguard. I was a champion swimmer at school… look at my body.

“I was good at lots of sports – rugby, cricket, running. They used to call me ‘Monster’, which is why I got this tattoo on my back. I went to a special needs school called Golden Hours… probably because I got hit by a truck when I was seven.

“I left school and went to go live by my uncle in Bloem for eight years. Then he died, so I walked back to Durban. It took me 13 days. People ask me, why don’t I have a car? So I tell them – look at these legs. They’re my engines. I can walk anywhere.”


Lawrence is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre with 100 other homeless people. Lawrence is well travelled, well dressed and he likes to quote 2Pac and the Bible. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Lawrence is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless people. Lawrence is well travelled, well dressed and he likes to quote 2Pac and the Bible.

“The lockdown changed my life, Corona changed my life. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to get locked away from drugs. Coronavirus made me be still.

“I had to make up my mind… so I went down on my knees. I said: ‘Heavenly Father, I’m tired of working for the devil. The devil is a liar. I wish I could preach to save kids from drugs.’

“With whoonga, you have to smoke to eat, smoke to sleep. You are living under the rosto [withdrawals]. The devil is the owner of the rosto. If you are a para [user], you are a vampire. You always make wrong decisions. You are always faulty.

“I started drugs in 2003. I used to smoke buttons [Mandrax], rocks, sugars, crystal. Drugs change you. Make you ashamed. You have to hide. That’s why I live on the streets.

“I’m originally from Toti. Once I went to Cape Town with my mom, my sister and my brother. We climbed Table Mountain, visited Cape Point, took a boat to see Mandela’s cell at Robben Island. It was amazing. But it took me no time to find the drugs there in Cape Town. When we flew home I went straight back to the street.

“I’ve been to rehab six times. I’ve been to Zulu doctors. Every month I could smoke R25,000 worth of drugs. The drugs were controlling me.

“But corona changed my life. No more hustling, begging. Lockdown – I said to myself, down the drugs. I’m done. If you carry on, you’re going to the grave.

“At first I was feeling like hanging myself because of the pain. But I’ve made it almost a month… now I can do 20 pushups no problem. Now I wear a tie so that people will respect me. I’m not dirty anymore.”


Stanley is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre. He always sits in the same spot in the churchyard, reading romance novels to pass the time. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Stanley is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless men. He always sits in the same spot in the churchyard, reading romance novels to pass the time.

“This is a nice safe place to be during lockdown… a bed to sleep in, a clinic and social workers. I do have another place to go but I don’t want to make my problems someone else’s.

“I’m a painter. I paint anything and everything. If there’s no painting work, I work in the garden or I buy and sell things – like watches and chains. It was once my dream to open a bottle store.

“I’ve been on the street for 25 years. I don’t like shelters – full of lice and people. I prefer sleeping out. Sometimes I sleep at friend’s houses or at the police station. But I don’t stay in one place for long… I have to keep moving, I get ants in my pants.

“I have family, but I don’t like to burden them. I’m 56 years old. I’m fit and strong, I’m happy. My family is well-to-do. But I don’t ask for anything.

“We are getting bored here – we just eat and sleep. After lockdown I’ll go see my friends and check if they have work… odd jobs. I sometimes go to Phoenix and Chatsworth to look for work, then I come back to the city, have a couple of drinks, forget my worries.”

Raymond Govender

Raymond was in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Raymond was in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless men. A friendly raconteur and instigator, he was often in the middle of any happening in the “churchyard”. Raymond was evicted from the shelter for selling blankets through the fence on the day of this interview.

“I got these tattoos in Pollsmoor prison. I was in the 27 gang. The Bloods. I went to prison in 1986 and I came out in 2020. You do the math. I’m from Jeffreys Bay originally. What happened was that my sister got raped. I only got one sister. She told me who it was… so I went and I killed that man in cold blood.

“I was sentenced to 40 years.

“In prison, I had to stab someone or get raped myself. So I stabbed a big black guy in the neck… then I got into the 27 gang, so they would protect me. I eventually became the fighting general of the 27 gang… I was so dangerous that I got moved to 21 different prisons during my sentence.

“I got beaten up by wardens so many times that I have no teeth left. When I got out of prison, I went and washed myself and my clothes in the sea at Sea Point. It’s customary… for a new start. I gave myself to the Lord and now I’m preaching to street children about the dangers of gangsterism.”

Tess and Selena

Tess and Selena are at the Durban Jewish Club homeless camp during the COVID-
19 national lockdown. They are the only women at the camp and are sharing a
tent with 50 other homeless people. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Tess and Selena are at the Durban Jewish Club homeless camp during the Covid-19 national lockdown. They are the only women at the camp and are sharing a tent with 50 other homeless people.

“We are the only women in this camp because we were here before the camp,” explains Tess. 

“There were about 25 of us living here. We cooked on a fire and collected water from the taps at the beach… it’s quite a long walk. 

“But the metro police always used to knock down our shelters and take our things. I told them: ‘Hey my ID is in there! But they just beat us and stole our bags… that’s how I lost my ID.

“I’ve been in Durban for 15 years, living on the street. I do get work sometimes as a cleaner. I came here from Hourville Noord, near Bloemfontein. It was like help for me when this corona thing came. No more suffering. Now we have running water, showers, food.”


Peter is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless
people. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Peter is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless people. Peter is everybody’s oupa – he sits quietly observing the yard and he looks forward to mealtimes like Christmas. He likes to escape the clamour for an afternoon nap and was one of the few people very eager to get his portrait taken.

“I’ve been living on the streets for 22, maybe 23 years. I used to work at the post office as a switchboard operator but I lost my job because I was old and because of affirmative action.

“I will be sad when lockdown ends because I’ll have to go back to living on the streets. It has been very nice to get lekker food every day and to have a warm place to sleep at night.”


Ryan is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless
men. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Ryan is in lockdown at the Denis Hurley Centre along with 100 other homeless men. Ryan strikes me as being deeply heartbroken. He shuffles around in his slippers all day, not joining in on the banter, card games or soccer matches. He loves his son more than anything in the world.

“I’m from Eshowe, everybody knows me there. I’m the ou that shot two cops when I was 17. But my trouble started before then…

“When I was a laaitie I went crying to my dad because a boy had hit me at school. So my dad hit me as well. He told me: ‘You’re a man, stand up for yourself.’ So I put a brick in my bag, went to school, and I hit that ou that was bullying me. I was expelled and sent away from home to live with my aunt in Sydenham, Durban.

“When I was 14, my friend’s dad asked me to light a bottleneck for him and then he told me to take a hit. I said no, but he influenced me. That’s when I started smoking Mandrax.

“When I was 17, back in Eshowe, there was animosity between coloureds and Indians. Some ous tried to f*ck us up so I shot a guy twice in the chest. He never died but I had to go on the run. Then the cops found me in town late one night and tried to arrest me but I shot them up – one in the neck and one in the knee.

“I ran away into a churchyard and they chased me, shooting at me, but I never got hit. I hid in a hedge and they kept on shooting at me until I surrendered.

“It’s a miracle that I never got hit, I should be dead.

“They beat me up when they caught me, but by this time there were too many cops there to kill me. Too many witnesses. They kept telling me to run away but I wouldn’t.

“They broke my ribs, my trigger finger. They finished my face.

“You know, I grew up in a church family but I never believed. After that day I believed.

“I was sentenced to 23 years in prison for attempted murder. I did my time at Waterval Prison in Utrecht and I was let out after 11 years. The whole time I was in jail, I never had a single fight, I never got harmed. After jail, I got a job and a girlfriend. Things started coming right.

“But the year I got free, 2009, is the year I got hooked on whoonga. Ay bru, imagine that? It messed everything up for me… I lost my job, my cherry, my laaitie.

“The first time I smoked it, I didn’t even know what it was. After prison, I went to go see my friends that I used to hang with and they were smoking weed. The next day I got sick, I thought I had the flu. I took time off work, went to the doctor. Then when I saw my friends again they laughed! They told me I’m sick because of smoking ‘sugars’ which is what they used to call whoonga back then.

“They told me if I smoked again I would feel better… so I did. I’ve been hooked for 10 years.

“Me and my girlfriend were doing alright for a while, we were starting a family.

“My son was born in 2011 and I had a job at Engen Garage as a driver. But things fell apart because of the whoonga. I was smoking 16, 17 capsules a day. I lost my job. I started selling everything in the house to buy drugs. My girlfriend had to sleep with her handbag under her arm. Eventually she packed her things, took my child and left. So I came back to Durban.

“I’m new to the street. I’ve been on the streets for four months. This year was the first time I’m away from my son on his birthday, on the 11 April during lockdown. I phoned him, I can hear in his voice that he’s not happy. We were so close, me and my son. I wanted to do everything different with him compared to how I was treated by my dad. If there is something worrying him I talk to him, I couldn’t ever smack him. Now I worry that our bond will break.

“I really tried, but the drugs f*cked me up.

“In the first two weeks of lockdown I had bad withdrawals from whoonga – stomach pains, cramps in my muscles and joints. My nose was leaking, I felt weak. But we get lukka (sic) chow, and now I’m feeling better. 

“Only problem is – I can’t sleep. I’m worried about going back to the streets, I don’t want to do the drugs anymore. I want to make things right and go back to my laaitie. I want to make a change.” DM

For more info and to donate to the cause visit


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz