Home(lessness) truths: confronting my own unkindness, fear and intolerance

A homeless man carries his cup of warm soup as he holds a teddy bear at a feeding point organised by a local church group in Johannesburg. (Photo:EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK)

One of the first thoughts to cross my mind was that this park cannot deteriorate like the parks in the inner city. It cannot be a makeshift home for the homeless. I thought of reporting this to the neighbourhood watch.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Last week I went to work out with my trainer in one of the small manicured parks close to my house which has a beautiful garden, outdoor exercise equipment and a swing set. Because of the curfew, gyms open later than usual and so do the bigger parks, so a number of people have taken to working out at this smaller park. When we arrived at 5.30am, we were startled to see about four homeless men. We intruded while they were getting dressed in their parking attendant uniforms. They packed their belongings and blankets away in a corner of the park and then set out to start their day as parking attendants across the street. My trainer and I were taken aback by the unexpected and novel scene. Was their homelessness a product of the pandemic?

One of the first thoughts to cross my mind was that this park cannot deteriorate like the parks in the inner city. It cannot be a makeshift home for the homeless. I thought of reporting this to the neighbourhood watch. My reaction was heightened because on a main road close to where I live there has been a growing number of young black boys making the pavement next to an abandoned building their home. I thought that the homelessness problem would be confined to the pavements on this main road and not spread into the parks. As a homeowner in this neighbourhood, my first reaction was that of fear rather than compassion. I wanted them to disappear and be homeless elsewhere. My reaction is exactly why it seemed like the men were scurrying so as not to be discovered by the intolerant. The way they hid their belongings was to ensure that you would never know that the park had been occupied. Had we not arrived earlier than anticipated, we would never have known their secret.

I was a bit embarrassed to catch them off-guard while they were getting dressed and packing their things. It was an intimate moment that should play out within four walls and not out in the open in front of judgemental eyes. I averted my eyes, not wanting to witness the four black men at their most vulnerable. They were the same parking guards in my neighbourhood whose faces I have not bothered to really look at. The parking guards who I have tipped but whose faces I have not seen. To me they were just stretched-out hands disconnected to any being, to any story and to any value. People not worthy of my memory or our collective national memory. People who are an inconvenience to the aesthetic of our neighbourhoods.

What must it feel like to be homeless? Is it to be driven purely by primal survival? I wonder if the brotherhood I sensed between those men was the realest form of friendship. The ability to see one another at their most desperate moment and surviving together. Is it a life of no pretence and frivolity?

I am horrified by my own unkindness and shallowness, and needing my neighbourhood to sanitise itself of these men. I have been socialised to seek proximity to the elite. Success means a greater distance between poverty and me. Poverty has a colour. It is black. We are taught to distance ourselves from those who look like us or remind us of where we come from. Progress means leaving those people behind. The kind part of me that knows better, knows exactly what I saw that morning. I saw the evidence of our privation as a nation. They are not homeless people. They are people without homes. There is a difference. True community cannot be curated. They are in my neighbourhood and therefore they are my neighbours too. I still go to the park with an open heart and my turned-down nose. DM168.

Lwando Xaso is an attorney and writer. Follow her on Twitter @including_inc

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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  • While activism articles are great to highlight a plight of a group of people that deserve our empathy, they rarely (as in this article to), highlight any real solutions. Lots of one sided accusations though, and an attempt to paint anyone that disagrees as heartless evil creatures. The issues of crime, hygiene, value of property, fire safety for these home owners that for most part are struggling to make ends meet, are completely ignored. Another article that sadly will not in any way help any one.