South Africa


Silent epidemic: No place called home

Homelessness has proven to be a spiralling issue across Cape Town. (Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)

Covid lockdown regulations shine the spotlight on a social problem that’s worsening.

Lockdown has highlighted that homelessness is an extreme expression of poverty, injustice and inequality. 

Speaking during a virtual conference held by the National Homeless Network, Wayne Renkin from the Tshwane Leadership Foundation said, “Homelessness did not become a crisis because of the pandemic but homelessness, in itself, is a crisis.” 

The two-day conference, which began on Wednesday, had more than 100 participants from various parts of the country, including drop-in Zoom centres in some cities for the homeless to access. It was held against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on both the homeless and those assisting them. 

Under the Disaster Management Act regulations, the state is mandated to provide temporary shelters that meet the necessary hygiene standards for homeless people during the hard lockdown. 

Provinces scrambled to shelter the destitute and were confronted with the sheer scale of homelessness in the country. 

Some lessons from Covid-19 

The need for collaboration was a key lesson. Raymond Perrier, director of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, said the city already had a collaborative network in place. 

“[It] was not just the NGOs in this field but also a number of academics, some businesses and some key government officials,” he said. 

Due to the existing collaboration, a women’s shelter opened four days into the hard lockdown. “We already had a building set up,” said Perrier. “We identified it two years ago.”

The shelter has continued operating despite the country moving into lower lockdown levels. 

“Durban, we like to feel, achieved more and did it quicker than any other city.” 

Eleven shelters were opened in the city which, at their peak, housed roughly 2,000 people. A call for donations by the centre brought in R1.6-million disbursed to various NGOs.

Mary Gillett-de Klerk from the Johannesburg Homelessness Network said the metro has more than 15,000 homeless people, but struggled with a lack of coordination. 

A task team, which includes the government and business, was formed to fill the gap. Part of their strategy is building an app to capture data and track the homeless in the city. 

Gillett-de Klerk admitted that research was still needed for accurate statistics on how many people were living on Johannesburg’s streets. 

Jon Hopkins from U-Turn Homeless Ministries in Cape Town explained that some of the city’s homeless went willingly to temporary shelters, while others were forced. 

Referring to the now-infamous Strandfontein shelter, Hopkins said he was told by some homeless people that they felt locked in with nowhere to go. 

“There was no social distancing which was very hard to do within these tents,” he said. 

Covid-19 showed that the uptake of healthcare by the homeless before the pandemic was low. Citing figures from the City of Cape Town, more than 1,300 street dwellers received chronic healthcare for conditions like TB, HIV and epilepsy. “There’s a big unmet need there. That’s a big letdown.”

Thousands, however, were not sheltered at Strandfontein. Organisations involved with these street dwellers coordinated feeding efforts through, for example, community kitchens and the Cape Town Action Networks (CANs). “There was a campaign to open public toilets, some of which were closed three years ago during the 2017 drought.” Seventeen public toilets across Cape Town were opened. 

The Inkathalo Conversations, a public engagement on homelessness in Cape Town, came about because of experiences from the pandemic, said Hopkins.  

Trauma and street living

Sandile Nhlaso, who has lived on the streets of Durban since he was eight years old, said he fears dying before getting a birth certificate or ID. 

“When I die my family can’t collect my body, the government will come and burn me to ashes.” 

After dropping out of school in Grade 2, Nhlaso became homeless and joined a gang. He landed in prison and served a seven-year sentence. When he finally got out, he discovered he was the only surviving member of his crew. 

When he left prison he struggled to find anyone who would give him a second chance. “That’s why sometimes I feel so depressed,” he said. 

Nhlaso grew up neglected and physically abused by his aunt. He feels abandoned by his parents.

“I’ve got this anger in me that I can’t release because I’m always feeling like I’m no one’s responsibility,” he said. 

Living on the streets has been hard for Nhlaso. “Sleeping on the floor, on the cement, it is painful,” he said. “When you’re sleeping, there are people who will come and call you names, kick you, wake you up so painfully while you’re sleeping. You don’t have peace when you’re on the streets.”

He wishes he could be free like everyone else, citing simple pleasures like the liberty to eat what he likes. DM 


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