The streets have many faces - how rules, drugs and charity keep people on the street

2019-07-08 06:08
The "Safe Space" in Cape Town (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

The "Safe Space" in Cape Town (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

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There are many reasons why people end up on the streets. And many more reasons why they stay there.

The plight of the homeless recently came into the spotlight again when News24 reported on how the enforcement of street by-laws have resulted in fines for several homeless people in Cape Town.

The City has denied it is harassing people and insists people are not accepting the myriad interventions it already has in place. It's a complex issue which the South African Human Rights Commission is investigating.

News24 spoke to different role players to unpack the issues and challenges at play. 

Social problems

Lorraine Frost, who heads the street people unit for the City, says one of their biggest challenges is substance and alcohol abuse.

"It stems from abusive homes, family situations, broken homes, poverty and unemployment. Those are key reasons why people are ending up on our streets," she says.

She is well acquainted with the challenges that the homeless face, she says in an interview at the City's "Safe Space", a transitional spot for street people under a highway in town.

The facility, which opened in 2018, currently houses 211 people. Beds on wooden pallets line up in neat rows and paint buckets are used as tables. There are lockers nearby (filled with clothes, toys and even books) and behind that, ablution facilities.

Most of the people who end up at the facility have substance abuse problems.

"It is rife in the Western Cape and we will work with those clients through our rehabilitation programmes," says Frost, adding that they are seeing great success.

Where is the money for fines?

Carla Morris, 31, from Mitchells Plain, and Craig du Plooy, 37, from Kensington are both familiar with drug abuse.

Carla Morris
Carla Morris (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Morris points out the spot where she sleeps at the safe space. She asks to rather pose for a photo next to the tree, the little bit of greenery found among concrete and corrugated iron.

When asked what she thinks about those on the street being fined for obstructing pavements, she shakes her head and says it's wrong and not a solution.

"I once got a R200 fine for using a substance in public. I probably sold my pair of jeans with the fine in it," she jokes, trying to recall her darker days on the streets.

"There are people on the street who are genuinely destitute. I feel for them," she says. "If they are fined, where do they get the money? Do they then have to go and steal?"

Morris started abusing drugs when she was a teen.

"I come from a good, functional family. I left school at an early age and ended up on the street."

In 2017, she was reintegrated back home but started stealing things under their noses to fund her habit.

She lost her family as a result and found herself digging in the bins in affluent areas.

Since receiving social assistance, she has graduated from a rehabilitation programme and is back in touch with her family.

"I don't have to sell clothes for drugs. When I get gifts, I keep them!"

Things are looking up. Morris is transitioning with the assistance of Groote Schuur Hospital and will be a bridesmaid in her brother's wedding.

Learning the hard way

Craig du Plooy, 37, from Kensington, says he had been studying to become a teacher when he started experimenting with tik (methamphetamine).

Craig du Plooy

Craig du Plooy (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

"In 2018, substance abuse got the better of me," he says. He soon found himself living on the streets of Cape Town and begging for money for drugs and food.

"I slept wherever I felt I was safe and could put my head down." After resting in a semi-dry and warm spot in building entrances in the foreshore, he would abruptly be woken in the morning and told to move on.

With one bag of old clothes, he found his way to the Safe Space and soon received help.

Today he is a volunteer there. In the future, he plans to finish his studies to teach maths and accounting to high school students.

"My family has been very supportive since I stopped drugs."

Rules

Around 85% of the people who come to the site are men. There are also dedicated sleeping bays for women and couples.

"Many people don't want to go to a shelter because they split the couples up. We don't," says Frost.

"Street people don't want to go to a shelter because they are too rigid so we relax the rules a little bit. We engaged with street people to ask what would appeal to them in such a space."

The space is for over 18s only and if children and babies are found in the street, they are referred to the Department of Social Development.

Many seniors were being found out in the open.

Aged on the streets 

"We are finding a lot of elderly people who have had their children accessing their pensions and accessing their houses. Unfortunately, that's just a fact that they are actually ending up on the street and becoming a street person at those ages," says Frost.

However, there were also those who had been on the streets for many decades.

"They grew up on the streets and they have aged on the streets."

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Lockers at the 'Safe Space' (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

The elderly are assisted with frail care. Other services for those at the site include relocation, reunification with families and access to IDs and grants.

The site relies on the donations and services of 35 entities. Coffee and tea is served in the morning and evening as well as food, which doesn't require cooking on site, as that is not allowed because of its location.

Frost says criminal elements have infiltrated the homeless.

Various groupings in the central business district are being headed up by leaders, some foreign nationals.

"Many of them are drug runners and we find that they are infiltrating our real street people who are on the street, so it's problematic."

'Enabling' the street life

Another problem is handouts.

"We find that most of the reasons why a person will not accept to go a shelter or safe space is that they are being enabled by our residents," says Frost.

This means they are getting food, blankets and money for substance abuse, alcohol and food from residents, she adds.

"They are very comfortable where they are."

Through the "Give Responsibly" campaign, they were trying to encourage residents to rather donate to a shelter or safe space.

What residents say

Neighbourhood watch organisers also raised the issue of criminal activity and donations.

"There are those displaced people who really need help and then there is the criminal element, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference," says Donna Kesler from the Oranjezicht Higgovale Neighbourhood Watch (OH WATCH).

Residents in the area commonly complain about people sleeping in their doorways or those who set up home in a public park with their dogs and who display "aggressive" behaviour.

"We [also] have people in our neighbourhood who are misguided and instead of coming to a [safe space or shelter]... will give them a tent and they will camp out," says Kesler.


(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Beds at the Safe Space (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

OH WATCH's social responsibility manager, Corieda Kotze, says the goal is to rather help people out permanently and find long-term solutions.

Angie Oddone, chair of the Milnerton Ridge Residents Association, says complaints in the area are mainly about people on the street harming themselves or others, or using substances.

"We are trying to get the whole community behind not enabling people, not giving to people because honestly, with the street people unit, they are amazing. Whenever there is somebody on the street who wants help, they are there," Oddone says.

"We are not wanting to deprive people of food. But you give that person food, they either go sell that to get money and they buy drugs. That's the reality because I have seen it. Or, they have the food and keep coming back and don't want to come to a place where they can be assisted."

She says she has witnessed officials offering assistance to the same people on the street time after time, with no threat of force or violence.

Peter Cookson from the City's social development department, says their main aim is to get people off the streets and reunite them with their communities or families - "not an easy task".

He says a lot of people take up their offer for assistance.

The City has indicated it has plans to set up a second Safe Space to accommodate the homeless.

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