New Cape Town homeless shelter houses some while others are left in the cold

New Cape Town homeless shelter houses some while others are left in the cold
The sole women’s dormitory is one of three at the Culemborg Expansion Site shelter. Women and men sleep separately. 14 August 2020. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

A second shelter in the CBD was opened by the City of Cape Town shortly after the infamous Strandfontein camp shut down. Though the pandemic rages on, many from Strandfontein have returned to the streets. Physical distancing protocols mean many shelters across the City are full and though this facility is a lifeline, scores of street dwellers are left to fend for themselves.

Hidden under the Culemborg bridge in the Cape Town CBD is a homeless shelter. It was once a parking lot, as a few perpendicular lines on the pavement indicate, but since mid July it has provided bed space for up to 96 people. 

The Culemborg Expansion Site is the third project of its kind set up by the City of Cape Town to alleviate pressure on existing shelters — especially in the cold winter months. It’s just a few metres from the flagship Safe Space facility opened in 2018. 

Jantjie Booysen heads up Ubuntu Circle of Courage, an NGO contracted as the service provider for the expanded Culemborg shelter. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

“There is a need for more safe spaces,” said City of Cape Town Mayco member for community services and health, Zahid Badroodien. “Our Safe Spaces are not traditional shelters. They are transitional facilities for persons who have expressed a willingness to accept assistance.” 

Another transitional facility was set up at Paint City in Bellville to shelter street people during the hard lockdown. Under normal circumstances, the combined facilities could house 700 people, but with social distancing in place, only 360 can be accommodated. The City has plans to open six facilities in total across the metro. 

The Culemborg Expansion Site shelter is almost at capacity.

The expanded Culemborg shelter was opened in mid-July 2020 and can accommodate 96 people in terms of social distancing protocols. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

“We have approximately 90 clients,” said Jantjie Booysen, the CEO for Ubuntu Circle of Courage, an NGO acting as the service provider for the site. Prefabricated structures on the property serve as dormitories and office space. 

Though Ubuntu serves as the current service provider, a tender has been advertised for a new operator. The advert closes on 21 September. 

Most clients came from the infamous Strandfontein temporary shelter which was shut down in May after criticisms over health, safety and human rights violations. About 1,500 people were housed in large marquees at Strandfontein Sports ground under what some civil society activists described as concentration camp-like conditions. 

The most ‘problematic group’ from Strandfontein

Florentina Brandt is one of roughly 16 women housed at the shelter. Before Culemborg she was at Strandfontein, a place which she said left her traumatised. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

This is a common phrase thrown around about the clients at the Expansion site. “There was always fights,” said Florentina Brandt, a resident at the shelter. But judging by the friendly nature of the majority, it’s almost hard to believe they were a difficult bunch.

Some were lying on the grass enjoying the sunshine while others played soccer in the makeshift courtyard. Hit song Jerusalema blared through a set of speakers to boost morale. 

“It’s a huge change from Strandfontein,” said Brandt, who was “traumatised” by her experience there. 

Abedah Lawson is the Project Manager for Ubuntu Circle of Courage, the NGO working as a service provider for the expanded Culemborg shelter. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

Abedah Lawson, the project manager for Ubuntu, says trauma is rife among the residents and much of it was exacerbated by Strandfontein. “I think a lot of them were being difficult because they weren’t being treated well,” she said. 

Marius Jacobs, 35, is a transgender woman who has been homeless for more than 10 years. Before coming to Culemborg she was sheltered at Strandfontein. (Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba)

Marius Jacobs, another resident who came from the infamous camp, said disagreements over food and bedding often turned physical. 

Ubuntu was approached by the City to manage the Expansion Site, says Booysen, whose NGO was a service provider at Strandfontein.

“The organisation has an existing relationship with the residents which allowed for a seamless transition into the site and its arrangements. The City followed its Grant in Aid policy, which allows for a Grant in Sponsorship, to fund this humanitarian relief programme,” explained Badroodien. 

When asked how many people were on the streets since Strandfontein’s closure in late May, Badroodien did not give current figures, but pointed to the 2018 Street People Enumeration which found that close to 4,000 people were street dwellers while 2,084 were housed in shelters. 

“Our researchers have recommended more frequent counts that will better inform us of trends and other key indicators in this regard.” 

The City was accused of “dumping” 178 homeless people just outside the expansion site after Strandfontein was closed down. In a statement from 22 May, the city rubbished this claim, saying the homeless under the bridge had refused accommodation at smaller shelters and opted to return to the CBD. Nonetheless, concerns arose over Covid-19 spreading among the homeless since a woman had tested positive at Strandfontein. But the City said close contacts of the woman had been offered accommodation at a quarantine facility. 

What the shelter has to offer

When Daily Maverick visited the shelter, piping was being installed for running water. The shelter didn’t have showers and was making use of Jojo tanks and bottled water for drinking. A few portable toilets were available. 

“When they opened this place there was no toilets,” said Jacobs, “Without toilets, we didn’t have a choice and had to do our business outside.” 

Each person had a bucket to use for bathing. Although the shelter had electricity, plug points had not been installed in the dormitories, which Booysen said was an issue for anyone wanting to charge a cellphone or access hot water. 

“I bought each room an urn,” said Booysen, indicating that he’d paid for some provisions at the shelter out of pocket despite the City’s grant which covers only meals, staff salaries and cleaning. 

The client’s temperatures are taken each morning and evening. The residents insisted that any new arrivals to the shelter be taken to a nearby hospital for screening or testing. Booysen says they don’t have sufficient PPE. 

Masks were worn here and there at the facility, but it wasn’t stringently enforced. Sanitisers weren’t visibly available in the dormitories. 

The fenced shelter site has security guards 24/7. Clients are allowed to leave, but must return by 9pm before the curfew. Some clients assist with enforcement of security protocols. Kevin Pillay is the resident disciplinarian and security head. He is strict, but caring and was also at Strandfontein. He now works with Ubuntu. 

“We don’t allow nonsense and try to keep everyone safe,” he said. 

Twice a month Ubuntu sponsors vanity packs for each client with items such as coffee, sugar, soap and toothpaste, says Booysen. Clients are served three meals a day. Some eat in the dorms as there’s no dining hall or eating area available. Upon arrival, the City provides each client with blankets, mattresses and vanity packs. 

Each dormitory, except one, has bunk beds. Mattresses have been used to furnish the single men’s dorm, without bed frames. From the residents, three monitors have been appointed for each dorm and perform a supervisory and emotional support role. They are paid for their duties. 

“It’s a way that Mr Booysen and Abedah have empowered us,” says Brandt, who works as a monitor. 

About 25 of the clients are employed in the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), but without IDs, many others cannot apply for this facility. Booysen pleaded with the City to provide additional funding so clients without documentation can apply at Home Affairs. 

Trauma and addiction

“Approximately 80% of our clients are struggling with drug addiction,” says Booysen. Brandt admits she’s a former drug addict in recovery. Jacobs struggles with alcoholism. 

Drug rehabilitation programmes are available through a partnership with the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre. The centre provides access to an additional social worker over and above the one employed by Ubuntu.

“We also formed a partnership with Play Sport 4 Life to use sport as a vehicle to address the other needs of our clients,” said Booysen — needs such as HIV/AIDS awareness and hygiene practices. Entrepreneurship, job readiness skills and strengthening family ties are other interventions available. 

Eight clients have been reunited with their families, says Booysen. His aim is for more to return home. Brandt, who has four children, says she only wants to return once her “foundation is strong”. 

“I don’t want to be like I used to be.” 

Jacobs, a transgender woman originally from the Eastern Cape, became homeless when a family dispute over money forced her to flee to Cape Town. Fifteen years later, Jacobs has faced challenging circumstances while living on the streets. 

“When I first arrived in Cape Town, I became a sex worker,” says Jacobs. She recounts an incident of sexual abuse where she was invited into someone’s home and whipped in exchange for R300.

“He made me crawl while beating me with a wet whip.” 

Jacobs continued to accept abusive clients to earn an income. The trauma resulted in her alcoholism.

When Strandfontein closed down, Jacobs came to live under Culemborg bridge in anticipation of the Expansion Site’s opening. Though she wasn’t harassed for being transgender at Strandfontein, she was verbally and physically attacked while squatting under the bridge. 

“It was my nightmare, because they started saying, ‘there’s a moffie’, ‘how could you allow this thing to sleep with men here’.”

The outsiders 

Many street dwellers live just outside the shelter. According to Booysen, some are involved in gangsterism and drug dealing which poses a challenge for clients in recovery. 

“We’ve had issues with unnecessary drinking, drugs and we’ve also found dangerous weapons.”

Though the shelter is sealed off from anyone who doesn’t work or live there, leftover food and surplus donated items are given to those “outside”. 

Jacobs says many of her friends from Tent 2 in Strandfontein were among those living outside the shelter. This angered her.

“People are standing at the gate watching us get food and every time I see them I think, ‘ah, that’s a lady who was coming from Strandfontein.’ It’s very hard.” 

Reviewing how the homeless are cared for

Booysen, who was a field worker for the City of Cape Town before opening Ubuntu in 2014, says there are push factors from communities of origin such as poverty, losing homes and gang activity that cause homelessness and pull factors to host communities (such as the CBD) which offer opportunities to earn money. 

He feels more needs to be done in communities of origin because in the CBD the City and homeless organisations are dealing with “the symptoms”. 

For Booysen, some of the challenges hindering reunification are chronic homelessness (people who have been living on the streets for many years), dysfunctional families and rejection from the community. For example, people coming from prison might struggle to reintegrate. 

The City announced in early August that it will review its Street People Policy established in 2013. The document hasn’t been revised since it was implemented, though it’s meant to be reviewed every two years. The policy is linked to the City’s bylaws, one of which came under fire in 2019 for allowing homeless people to be fined.

“We will be undertaking a series of dialogues with the street people sector in the coming months to help inform the strategy,” said Badroodien. 

In a statement, the City said a series of dialogues including Street People Forum and Shelter Forum organisations, Community Improvement Districts and street dwellers would be concluded by 10 October 2020 (World Homeless Day). 

When asked what the Street People Policy review meant to her, Jacobs said she hopes the City will listen to the concerns of the homeless. “We normally don’t have a say,” she said. DM


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