i was given an opportunity to visit the Strandfontein site yesterday where around 2000 homeless people are being held.
On Good Friday i had written this post about Strandfontein which had gained a fair amount of traction. Based on stories i had heard from people who are very well connected to some of the people who were at the site and also some articles i read and videos i watched.
So when a friend of mine told me he had been in with an NGO and was likely going in again on Monday i asked if there was any way i could accompany them. And there was.
So yesterday i joined an NGO that went in to the sites to drop off 2000 hot cross buns and had an opportunity to take a look around one of five main sites where some of the homeless people from around Cape Town and also the privilege of speaking to a number of them.
Where are the words?
We were there for about three hours and when i made it home at around 6pm i had no words. The whole thing summed up felt quite confusing and surreal.
But before we get to a summary of my experiences at Strandfontein, i want to pivot, Christopher Nolan style, and start with the conclusion of this post, which came to me in a conversation with my good mate Wayne Eaves this morning. This is very likely not the story you were hoping for, because it might include both you and me as a main character.
Part of a voice note Wayne sent me was this which is a really kick to the sensitive spots:
‘The neighbourhoods these people are from have already failed them. For me the big complexity is we failed them prior to this. And so another ongoing failure is not surprising. What I find myself more concerned by is that we had failed them before this and that people can’t see that. And so that’s the challenge for me.’ [Wayne Eaves]
But who is this Wayne Eaves guy you may be wondering? Well, let me give you some context on his authority to speak words like this. i told him vague stories of two men i spoke to in the camp. He knew both of them and was able to give me some added context. So that’s two of the people i spoke to out of a crowd of 2000 gathered people, and he had personal experience [and some kind of walked journey] with both of them. Wayne gets to speak.
One of the thoughts i had when we were driving home last night was, “Why are you suddenly caring about the homeless people, Brett? What happened to before all of this? And what happens after?”
i do have a bit of an answer for that, and some thoughts and even stories of some journeys alongside the homeless, but that’s not for now. What is for now is reflecting on how we as society have often failed those who live on the streets, and how have i been part of that failure?
Wayne ended that voice note with a question that is worth listening and giving attention to.
‘How do we listen to people who are not like us?’ [Wayne Eaves]
i very much doubt any of the people in the camps were consulted in terms of figuring out the best plan for them. i also very much doubt they have been asked since arriving at the site how they would like things to be run. While i was visiting Strandfontein yesterday my friend was in a meeting with a church where they invited two homeless guys who have been part of the community for years to speak to them as experts and help them identify how to serve their community best. There is something very beautiful in there that echoes humanity and dignity.
How DO we listen to people who are not like us? More importantly maybe, do we listen at all to people who are not like us?
Thoughts and Reflections on Strandfontein
i think Valerie helped me the most last night as i tried to find any words to try to bring to life the experience i had visiting and talking to the homeless people in Strandfontein: There is not just one story!
And i think that is probably the most helpful lens to hold on to when we try to understand what is going on there. Because we have both heard and seen contradictory stories and interviews and even videos of what is happening there.
A video was made during our visit there yesterday [AND WE HAVE TO STOP FILMING AND TAKING PICTURES OF HOMELESS AND POOR PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION – IT IS NOT OKAY!] which arrived in one of the Homelessness Whatsapp groups i am part of making it look like a Summer Camp. Every thing in the video might be true in some sense – but the video is not true. And i am hoping it remains partially hidden in the Whatsapp group.
My friend who went with me agreed with the cringeworthy nature of it. Which feels like an extension of Wayne’s comment about listening and calls us to be much better in the way we speak about those who are different to us.
So multiple conversations and multiple stories and not everyone’s experience is the same by any stretch of the imagination. The one constant that i got from i think every single person i spoke to was that there is not enough food. That came up again and again. They are getting three meals a day and according to the one guy i spoke to they are getting coffee [although heard a story the other day where an urn was taken away from one site and they were making coffee from hot [warm] shower water despite signs that the shower water wasn’t safe for drinking.] but no-one there feels like they are eating enough.
But let me back up one step as i share some of the thoughts and reflections i have after having set foot at the site:
# Before we even go to my experience, i believe it goes without saying that the idea of putting 2000 people from the streets into one general space and then having them divided into groups of 200-500 with no physical distancing is just a bad and messed up idea. Just if you take TB and HIV into account, but once you add in the threat of the present corona virus, it becomes absolute madness quite quickly. So i was heading in to explore what was by its nature a very bad idea.
# The sense you get when you drive up to and into it is that this is a prison. Nothing about the fences and people standing behind fences looking out suggests anything else but a prison. Which is why i choose to use the word site when talking about Strandfontein, because absolutely nothing [except the presence of tents] suggests that this is a camp. It is a site far away from town [this feels strategic – get the homeless as far away from us as we can] where people are enclosed behind fences.
So the initial impression before driving inside and speaking to a single person is that this is not a place where dignity or humanity is being emphasised or celebrated. With five or more enclosed spaces a hundred meters or more away from each other, another comparison you might draw is that of a zoo in terms of feel as you walk in to see people behind what might as well be cages.
# i only got to speak to people at one of the 5 sites. It was three tents initially i believe and now there are 5 that are housing people but at least 3 or maybe 4 more have been set up and some of the people in the Oasis site i was in believed they were going to split their group [which is the biggest group and seems to be around 440 people]. So the experience and conversations i had were very specific to that one site and are not necessarily a reflection of what is going on in the others. T
There were indications to suggest that this was the site with the most positive vibe. i really had been hoping to be at the site where the Somerset West group was as they were one of the groups i heard were lied to about coming here and being able to go home, but i was not able to verify that unfortunately.
# It definitely seems like some of the people were lied to or misinformed aboutwhere they were going. But the majority of people i spoke to shared a kind of Catch-22 scenario where they were given the chance of coming to Strandfontein vs the threat of if they stayed on the streets the cops would find them and lock them up for six months. So was there really a choice as we were all to many times? Technically yes [for some, but not all] but for the most part there were no realistic alternatives on offer. So a false choice.
We have also heard countless times that they are free to go if they want,but it is the same kind of thing. [Firstly, i heard conflicting stories about this where one group told me you can go if you prove you have a house to go to] The idea is you are free to leave but the moment you step out the gate the police [and there are enough of them gathered at various spots outside of the enclosures] can arrest you for contravening lockdown. So can you leave, really?
# On Sunday what felt like a very politicised story about 2000 mattresses being delivered to the homeless [i am actually quite angry now cos the original article i saw used the word despatched which could technically have meant they were on the way, but when i googled now i came upon this article which not only says they were delivered but has a comment from JP Smith saying the same – this is a blatant lie]
The City of Cape Town on Sunday delivered 2 000 mattresses to the homeless being accommodated at the controversial temporary camp at Strandfontein Sportsground.
“Tonight, everybody will sleep comfortably. This is probably one of our greatest regrets in setting all of this up. We had a week lead time to get this all together and if we’d had a year like with the Safe Space the story would’ve been very different, but in a week you don’t get it like you want it, ” mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said on Sunday.
Let me tell you what i saw. When i walked into the Oasis tent [440 people give or take] i did not see a single mattress. There may have been some mattresses in the tent possibly, but i saw a lot of space near the entrance where people were sleeping on the ground and empty spaces with clearly no mattresses. So it seems like there were none there at all.
Then, while we were there we saw trucks delivering mattresses to two other sites [of the 5] which means that 1000 people did not have mattresses on the night we were being told they would be sleeping comfortably. That leaves a super bad taste in my mouth and explains why on the way out when i took a picture of the mattresses arriving a lady [who i found out was a city official] started shouting at me, “You can’t take video here. You can’t take video here.”
If the powers that be are blatantly lying about something like this for the sake of impressions, then it becomes a struggle to believe other things they are saying.
A little bit of everything
# The Oasis site had music playing over a decently loud speaker [It didn’t seem as if the other sites had this but i couldn’t tell for sure] and soccer balls, skipping ropes and a karim table and so there has been some effort made to give them a few activities to do.
# When i walked into the tent which was housing about 440 people, there were men and women all grouped in the same tent in spaces right next to each other and the whole context of the space just felt like an awful, uncomfortable and not very pleasant idea. One of the men spoke to me about sand lice that was being picked up and how it had started to eat pieces from his friend’s body. Couldn’t verify that but seemed possible in that space. And anything like that will be passed on quickly. There was a medical tent quite far from the other tents where apparently 40 of the worst TB case patients had been moved but i also couldn’t verify that. When my group took hot cross buns to the medical staff they were told they had left for the day and i’m not sure what that means in terms of who is around medically after 5pm.
# There were definitely people who wanted to be there. The group i went in with work in an informal settlement called Sevende Laan and the one man i met had actually walked from there [not too far away] to the site and signed himself up so to speak because he had lost his job and the opportunity for three meals a day was appealing to him. Half of the people i chatted to seemed to be content at the site and half of them would prefer to go back to where they stay. Again, this is a small pool of people from just one site.
# Toilets are fine and showers with at least warm water and no-one seemed to have a problem with those – toilets were being cleaned while we were there and that happens daily. i counted i think 8 or maybe 10 showers which is for 440 people so that doesn’t seem great. The one man i spoke to in a wheelchair said he had no-one to help him into the shower and so he just found another way to clean himself, which does not sound great. There was at least one other man in a wheelchair at this site.
# There are definitely dignity and humanity aspects in terms of how things are being done. A comment of “We’re not children!” sticks in my mind.
As we were heading home, my mate Al turned to me and said something along the lines of, “As I’m trying to get my head around this I approach it from the aspect of we can’t do anything about how they got here. This is where we are at now. And we have to do everything we can to make it a lot better than it is now.”
Which has a lot of truth to it, although i think the City has to be held accountable for some blatant untruths they have held on to, plus just the lack of being able to be honestly transparent and say, “You know what? We messed up. This was not even a little bit of a good idea. Help us get out of this mess and make as right as we can with these people and commit to treating them like as much a part of the city as the wealthy and everyone else.” i have been in direct email communication with counsellor Zahid Bahoodrien [at least three emails, he hasn’t yet responded to the one i sent after my visit and i get how incredibly busy he is right now so perhaps that will come later] who has been nothing but defensive and it will be interesting to see how he responds to first-hand observations and conversations i have had on site. But now is not the time for political posturing. We have done the people who sleep on the streets in our city a disservice. We need to apologise to them. And we need to do better.
i am fortunate to be connected to a large number of people who in different groups and communities are working behind the scenes furiously [Zoom stocks must be rising by the minute!], majority of whom are with the church i don’t often get to cheer as much about as i would like to. Crisis seems to be when we see the church being the church which is amazing [but we need to clearly work on our comfort zone game!] to provide solutions which are better and i am hopeful they will be coming in the next few days. The time frame may be a tricky one because putting so many people together the COCT has created a medical challenge which will need to be figured out well before people can be relocated into places that hopefully provide more dignity and safety.
i will close by reminding us to remember that THERE IS NO SINGLE STORY HERE. There are so many intertwined and interwoven pieces. There are a lot of falsehoods flying around social media. And even the videos we see cannot be trusted. i recorded a testimony that would tell a certain story if i posted it, but found out later there is a strong likelihood that it was completely false. That is the confusing nature of these events. We can’t believe everything we hear. i feel so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to go and see with my eyes and listen with my ears and at least have a slightly more accurate understanding of what is going on in Strandfontein. But i don’t know the full truth. We can only hope to do the best with what we have and hopthat finally the whole of Cape Town can pull together and start valuing lives and people over everything else.
i hope this has been a helpful glimpse…
May we not rest comfortably until everyone is resting a little more comfortably.