Life and death on street

2019-12-10 06:01
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On Wednesday 4 September, the body of a man was found in Wetton Road, Wynberg.

As is usually the case when people are homeless and there is no medical history available, his body was sent to Salt River mortuary.

His sister, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday 29 September she received a call from a friend, informing her that her brother had died.

In search of his body, she went to the Wynberg informal settlement where her brother had lived for the past 25 years.

“I tried to speak to some of the people there, but they were having a tipsy-turvy Sunday and I couldn’t get anything out of them.”

On Tuesday 1 October, she went to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at Wynberg police station.

She says: “Walking in there at 7:00 in the morning, I was scared. Often you hear negative stories about the police as to the lack of assistance, nonchalant treatment and arrogant attitude.”

She says what happened next took her by complete surprise.

“I was immediately taken to Capt Andre Wolhuter’s office. He had a file on my brother on his desk.”

Capt Wolhuter instructed her to obtain an unabridged birth certificate for her brother from Home Affairs.

The paperwork was needed to put a priority on having her brother’s fingerprints checked to identify the body.

Cpt Wolhuter right away assigned Cst Nathaniel Da Silva to assist her through the process, starting with going with her to the mortuary the next day (Wednesday 2 October) to identify her brother.

Once the results on the fingerprints came back, confirming her brother’s identity, the body was cleared for release.

Cst Da Silva went with her to the morgue and stayed for the clearance process.

She says no words can express the gratitude the family feels for the help they received from the CID.

“From the first day I stepped into Capt Wolhuter’s office, I was treated with professionalism and respect. And the same goes for Cst Da Silva and Sgt Colin Naude.”

Her brother’s remains was cremated on 23 October and a memorial service was held on Saturday 9 November.

She says it was then, with all of the family and friends gathered, that the emotion came. Her brother was two months away from his 59th birthday when he died of natural causes.

“Lying in the mortuary for a month labelled as ‘unknown’ was traumatising for the family. Unfortunately, he made the choice to live that dark life.”

She says until his early twenties her brother had a good life.

He was married, had two children and was a qualified tradesman. But then he got involved with the wrong crowd and started using drugs.

“Things just spiralled. It reached a point that nobody in the family wanted him to live with them anymore because things just kept on disappearing.”

Within a few years, he was living on the street.

According to Wayne Mitten, the facility manager at Salt River mortuary, they receive quite a lot of unidentified bodies a year. He says people would be surprised at how many South Africans do not have a valid ID document.

He says the burden then falls on the police or families to prove the deceased’s identity before the body can be released for burial.

According to health and safety regulations, the mortuary should only keep a body for 30 days. But Mitten says the process of identifying a body usually takes much longer.

Only once the police have pursued all avenues – fingerprinting, DNA testing, facial reconstruction – will they supply the mortuary with a letter, allowing it to give the unidentified person a pauper’s burial.

Ian Veary, a social worker from The Hope Exchange – an NGO assisting the homeless – says conditions on the street are harsh.

People are vulnerable to the cold weather and food is limited.

If they get injured or ill, they may not be able to access basic services, become immobile and eventually succumb to infection.

“I’ve had to pick up two ladies whose physical health had deteriorated to such an extent that they died a week after being hospitalised. What makes it more difficult is when there’s no identification on the person. It becomes very difficult to trace the family.”

Veary says social workers in the city work hard to try and restore family connections. He says it is a long journey to recovery from addiction and often there are relapses along the way. Many families go for years, trying to help, before “giving up”.

“I have seen so many families struggling to find a balanced approach but eventually they have to accept that they are not able to solve the problem.”

He says, however, that families don’t have to do it on their own.

His advice to families is to not provide money to the individual but to refer the person needing assistance to an organisation and then to support the organisation.

“There are many community resources and churches in different areas that can try to assist. There’s no one solution for change but rather a set of puzzle pieces that need to be put in place.”

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