URBAN LIVING SPACES
When worlds collide: Sea Point street dwellers say they feel like outcasts as city’s homelessness plans come under scrutiny
Proposed amendments to a by-law on Cape Town’s streets, and a questionnaire sent out by the City requesting complaints about street dwellers, have angered activists. To get a perspective of life on the street, Daily Maverick looked at Sea Point on the Atlantic Seaboard, where conflict between the homeless and ratepayers has escalated recently. Homeless people complained they were treated as outcasts by law enforcement and the community at large, while ratepayers have been lobbying authorities, arguing that street dwellers are downgrading the area.
The affluent suburb of Sea Point is home to a growing population of homeless people. One of whom is Kevin Yon, a 49-year-old man residing in “Tent City”, an autonomous homeless camp near the police station.
Yon, who escaped Hanover Park for safety reasons, says he is treated as “less than human” by the Sea Point community. “You get chased away. The community treats you like you’re an outcast.”
Caryn Gootkin, the fundraising coordinator for NPO Souper Troopers, said the public generally see the homeless as “a problem” that tarnishes the image of the suburb. “It is never looked at from the point of view of the homeless person. It’s always about the ratepaying residents,” she says.
Lajune Schutte, a 47-year-old Tent City resident, says ratepayers have complained that the homeless are “downgrading the area”.
During a visit to Sea Point’s promenade, some homeless people have found solace in the sunshine after several rainy days. Others search in bins for food and useful items. Here and there, a few people beg passers-by for money or a meal while others still stand at the robots with signs asking for food, clothing, shelter, coins or employment.
According to a costing study by U-Turn Homeless Ministries in 2020, there are more than 14,000 homeless people in Cape Town. There is no exact figure for Sea Point, but, anecdotally, NGOs say it has grown.
Hostility towards the homeless reached fever pitch in May 2020 when at the height of the hard lockdown, a car was set alight. A man named Peter Wagenaar had been distributing food to Sea Point’s destitute from the vehicle.
Feeding schemes in the area have also been followed, threatened and harassed.
Last month the City of Cape Town found itself in hot water after distributing a questionnaire to various wards soliciting complaints about homeless persons.
People were asked to give information on when and where they first encountered “street people” and what the homeless were doing during these encounters. Examples were suggested, such as robbing people, urinating on a public road and damaging infrastructure.
The City did not respond to queries about the intentions behind the questionnaire but had told GroundUp that “it is entitled to request information from all of its citizens in order to assess the effect of homeless street people on its broader population”. The questionnaire was never withdrawn. For Gootkin, it was “in bad taste” and akin to drumming up support against street dwellers.
Activist and spokesperson for the Strandfontein Homeless Action Committee (SHAC) Carlos Mesquita was “shocked” by the tactic. Mesquita, who not long ago lived on Sea Point’s streets, said the document painted the homeless as criminals.
In response, SHAC sent out a counter-questionnaire asking street dwellers to recount their experiences with Cape Town officials.
Mesquita says the city was “quite obviously” gathering evidence to argue its case against a group of homeless people who have taken the City to court.
On 31 March, 11 homeless people represented by housing activist organisation, Ndifuna Ukwazi, filed papers at the Western Cape High Court and Equality Court challenging the constitutionality of the Streets, Public Places and the Prevention of Noise Nuisances (Streets) and Integrated Waste Management by-laws.
The City’s draft amendments to the Streets by-law have angered activists, NGOs and homeless people.
Ndifuna Ukwazi, alongside a coalition of homelessness-related organisations, rejected the amendments which may empower law enforcement officials to:
- Direct a person to stop prohibited conduct, remove an obstacle, and to leave and remain out of a specified place;
- Issue compliance notices as well as notices to appear in court or pay a fine;
- Arrest a person who commits an offence in terms of the by-law and to search a person if necessary;
- Impound goods and materials as per the City’s Standard Operating Procedure on the Impoundment of Goods and Animals, 2012; and
- Require identification.
To ensure the by-law is enforced humanely the City said that people found sleeping in public spaces would only commit an offence if they refused a “reasonable offer for alternative accommodation”.
Cape Town is battling a shortage of shelter beds after lockdown escalated the homelessness epidemic.
“Our clients have often had all their belongings, including ID documents, toiletries, purses and very personal belongings, confiscated by law enforcement under the guise of a clean-up in terms of the Streets by-law,” says Gootkin.
“The fact that the by-laws exist in their current state is problematic enough in that it gives law enforcement the power to criminalise the very act of homelessness. However, law enforcement also uses those by-laws and overreach their powers in terms of those by-laws to remove personal belongings of homeless people, which is absolutely not lawful.”
In 2019, Judge Lee Bozalek granted an order against the City prohibiting officials from interfering with, confiscating personal property from or harassing and abusing the homeless. This was after seven homeless people sought to interdict the City from issuing fines to street dwellers.
Simon Nickola (not his real name) says being homeless is like “living in a jungle”. “We are at the mercy of hijackers, drug addicts and alcoholics. We deal with hunger, thirst and cold. We are living in hard, tough times,” says the 63-year-old.
The Jordanian refugee has lived in Tent City for two years.
“Sometimes two days go by without showering. At one point I went four to six months without bathing.
“We look like human beings but we’re not living like human beings.”
To make a living, he sells earphones and loose cigarettes on the street.
A few kilometres away, outside Sea Point’s solid waste depot on Tramway Road, we met Ernest Jacobs who has been homeless for 56 years.
Jacobs (known as Rasta) repairs and sells discarded goods to make a living. He says law enforcement has “stolen” his belongings over the years. When he’d tried to collect them he was told they had been thrown away.
According to Michael Ender, chairperson of the Sea Point Fresnaye Bantry Bay Residents and Ratepayers Association (SFB), the approach to dealing with homelessness in Sea Point has changed from relying on law enforcement to providing outreach to those on the street.
SFB started H.O.P.E (Homelessness Outreach Prevention & Education), a programme that encourages collaboration between street dwellers, residents, NGOs and other stakeholders. For example, its Safety and Cleaning Initiative in collaboration with Straatwerk and Avenue Response has been running since 2015.
But not everyone is happy about this new deal.
“It is an unfortunate reality that some residents in our area still believe that the homeless issue is a law enforcement problem that needs to be dealt with accordingly,” said Ender.
He says a Facebook group, the Atlantic Seaboard and City Bowl Action Group, has been using a “misinformation campaign” to discredit SFB’s work and, according to a 13 May statement, led residents to believe that Sea Point “resembles a high-crime area where it is unsafe to walk day and night”.
Gootkin says Souper Troupers is trying to show the public the “human face of homelessness”.
“We try and see what we can do to help that individual human improve their life and move to more secure accommodation.”
For Mesquita, who now lives in a shared living space for the homeless called Our House, Sea Point once had a peaceful relationship with the homeless community, but over time things changed. “Suddenly there was almost a campaign against the homeless.
“There was a man that used to put out his bin on a Saturday night. He used to break his glass bottles and hide the pieces among a topping of grass or plants and not knowing as you dug deeper your hands got cut to shreds. Another used to watch his bin on his CCTV screen and if homeless people started scratching in his bin, he would drop empty bottles on them.
“Worst of all for me was [a private security company], who are a law unto themselves, especially in the more affluent areas above Fresnaye. They operate those streets as if they are privately closed streets and would physically manhandle us, set their dogs on us and slap people in their faces. They also always made recordings of us or took our photographs without permission and then circulated them amongst each other, so they were always in the hunt for those of us on their system.”
The period to comment on the proposed changes to the Streets by-law closed on 29 June. DM