This has been a week of two stories when it comes to the homeless people of Cape Town or those who tend to live on the streets.

Earlier this week i was encouraged and inspired to see testimony from the St Peters microsite that has been created to take care of around ten homeless men during lockdown. Which you can and should read about over here. A number of my friends are involved there and what has been most exciting to watch has been how holistically they have tried to do things. This isn’t about saving lives so much as it is about recognising and advocating for the humanity of people. 

This was followed by a wake-up call this morning as i was alerted to what sounds like 150 people from the Strandfontein site who have been dumped under a bridge in Cape Town with their tents and little else – no food or water according to Michael, who is one of the men:

 

Being reminded that this is the Strandfontein site that i got to visit and write about. The same one that DA members continued to defend despite more than seven different organisations, including Doctors Beyond Borders and the Human Rights Commissions had condemned and called to close. 

“Women, men, transgender women, elderly men and women, pregnant women, people with disabilities, people with severe mental health disorders, drug users with acute withdrawal symptoms and gang members are all grouped together, with an increased risk of violence and very limited security in place, thereby endangering their safety as well as their dignity. Rather than being a place of safety, the shelter exposes vulnerable people to further harm,” writes Dr Gilles van Cutsem from Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders, who looked at health issues. 

City of Cape Town Councillor and Mayco for Health Dr. Zahid Badroodein could be found this morning on the Facebook page of Jared Sacks [where i originally saw this story break which i then confirmed with a friend of mine who was there til 2am trying to work for the homeless people’s interests] arguing in defence of the move by the City. 

The other day DA leader John Steenhuisen was talking on the news about the thousands of South Africans who had been emailing him and pressing him for the kind of action the DA was taking. When pushed to answer the question, “Which South Africans?” by the news presenter Flo Letoaba, John got visibly flustered and kept speaking about a generic group of ‘thousands of South Africans on social media’ that he represented. Was he talking about these 150 homeless people stuck under a bridge just as winter is bearing down upon us? i’m not sure.

Or what about the residents of 414 Arcadia House on Main Road, in Observatory, who just won an interdiction against the City of Cape Town for trying to evict them during the lockdown. Was John Steenhuisen including them in his ‘thousands of South Africans’ i wonder? No, i don’t. Cos clearly the DA has a bad reputation when it comes to the marginalised in Cape Town and any kind of equal treatment to the more wealthy and typically white residents in the province. 

 

Character of how we treat the homeless

 

But let’s head back to St Peters. And if you didn’t read it yet, please head on over and take some time to really lean into this piece written by my friend Richard Bolland.

It is beautiful. And it is devastating. Because life is seldom one or the other. But St Peter’s holds up the picture of possibility. What could happen if our most marginalised people were respected and cared for and not pushed to the side.

Leila, our New Hope coordinator, joined the team as another social worker. Leila and Vivien worked hard together to ensure that each resident had a clear plan for settling into community life. Boredom was enemy number 1 and schedules were our secret weapon. Routine really helped calm anxiety & gave everyone clear direction what was happening in each part of the day. Psycho-social activities included several workshops, exercise & sport activities. Skill courses saw the residents making planter boxes, learning their way around a computer & cooking classes. Most of these were run by volunteers who committed time each week & built warm friendships with the residents.

Each resident had a Personal Development Plan (PDP) and participated in personal growth time each day. We are fortunate to have 2 computer desktops, a TV & the internet to aid some of the skill courses, give relevant news about the coronavirus & provide some valuable entertainment in the evenings.

As time progressed we adapted to the needs that emerged. We got nothing right on the first attempt but after refinement and tweaking everything seemed to fall in place and work smoothly.

Go and read the rest of it over here.

Working with the homeless is not easy sometimes. i have been fortunate enough on a few occasions in my long life to have had a few different opportunities to do so. It typically ends up exposing a lot that is wrong with me, starting with the belief that i am somehow better than them.

Because that really feels like the crux of this. There is no way that i would stand for my family to be treated like that. There is no way i would stand for close friends to be treated like that. But most of the time i am okay with the fact that people live outside while i live in a warm house with all of the things.

i think i am better than most people that live on the street. Let’s pause on that one for a moment. This is not me writing from a space of ‘I’ve got it all together and i see the evil in you and you are wrong and you need to change!’ That may well be true too. But this starts with me. i know it is not true though. i know it is a lie i hold on to more often than i would care to admit. And that is disturbing. It is a lot easier if i can just blame the bad people on this. If i can throw words at the John Steenhuisens and the Zahid Bahroodiens of the world, who are in the places of power, making what seem like really uncompassionate empathy-free decisions. But i can’t. Cos this is on me as well. And it is on you.

We live in a country that has a St Peter’s microsite which is caring for the dignity and recognising the humanity of a group of men who lived on the streets [Spoiler alert: this particular community was doing this for those men in a different way before lockdown as well!] and that has a provincial leadership making human rights challenging decisions about the well-being, safety and dignity of a much larger group of people living on the streets.

We live in a country where i can be appalled at the way that the DA treats these men and women and where i need to be apalled when my own heart, actions and lifestyle mirror that.

It is messy, it is complicated and there is much work to be done all around. But i am thankful for the volunteers at the microsite who are a daily reminder that we can and must do and be better. And it is my – and your – duty to hold those in power [who in this province happen to be the DA right now] to accountable and to call them to account for many of the questionable actions they have committed during this time [while at the same time taking the government to court for not being able to manage the pandemic well? What a hypocritical joke].

Let us not remain silent on this. Let’s find the news articles and photos and stories and share them far and wide, doing as best as we can to hold the dignity of the men and women involved – this is not “an issue”, this is the lives of people. Those in power must be held accountable and things done in the dark must be brought to the light. Our very humanity depends on it.

[As a side note, there are many Community Action Network groups in suburbs all over South Africa – some of them functioning better than others but many of them doing incredible work in terms of connecting resources and food and money to those in need. If you are not involved already and giving regularly if you can or volunteering your time or skills if you don’t have the money, then please get connected and ask how you can help. If you’re in Cape Town the easiest way to get connected is through the Cape Town Together group on Facebook.]