Covid-19: How Cape Town’s homeless are staying safe on (and off) the streets

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Before Florentina Branot ended up at the Culemborg shelter, she spent four winters on the streets of Cape Town – homeless. Picture: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
Before Florentina Branot ended up at the Culemborg shelter, she spent four winters on the streets of Cape Town – homeless. Picture: Nasief Manie/Spotlight


Siyabonga Kamnqa visited shelters in Cape Town to chat to homeless people about their lives during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and under the lockdown. He also asked government what is being done to assist and protect vulnerable members of our society.

For the past four years, Florentina Branot has been living under squalid conditions on the streets of Cape Town.

Branot tells Spotlight she ended up living on the streets after “mixing with the wrong crowd” and getting hooked on drugs in Retreat, a suburb in Cape Town, where she hails from.

Seated on a bed inside the Culemborg Site 2 shelter, Branot says life wasn’t always like this. She once had a wonderful life and was married with four children before things took a turn for the worse.

She is 33 but looks much older.

Her husband, who she says was a gangster, was convicted and sentenced to two life terms for murdering a traffic officer in 2016.

“That was when my life went on a downward spiral and I found myself being isolated by my family. They tried to talk me out of drugs, but I was hooked already. Then I decided to go and live on the streets where no one would judge or rebuke me,” she says.

To feed her drug habit, she often spent cold nights begging at traffic lights.

“Life on the streets was very tough. But I’m glad that today I have found a home here [Culemborg]. I am grateful for the roof over my head and the hot meals,” she says.

Branot is among 96 homeless people living at the Culemborg Site 2 in the inner city, many of whom are finding it hard to come to cope with the Covid-19 regulations.

Read: ‘We are on the streets because we need to keep hustling’ – say the homeless

Since March the regulations compelled people to stay at home and avoid crowded places.

The level 4 lockdown regulations in April also tasked government with providing “temporary shelters for homeless people that comply with the necessary health protocols and adequate spacing standards”. Four months later Spotlight visited some shelters in Cape Town to assess measures put in place to protect the health and safety of the homeless.

Health on the streets

Homeless people living on the streets is often framed as a social and a housing problem and less so as a health issue. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has shifted the focus to the health and safety of vulnerable populations – including the homeless.

One recent study estimated that by 2008 there were between 100 000 and 200 000 homeless people in South Africa. Besides housing, various other social determinants of health such as nutrition, substance abuse and access to water and sanitation all impact homeless people.

For homeless people such Branot, survival depends on being on the streets, mostly living from hand to mouth. While they are allowed out during the day, many at the shelter say they miss their “normal” lives.

Meitjie Maans survived TB whilst living on the str
Meitjie Maans survived TB whilst living on the streets of Cape Town. She says she was a ‘heavy drinker’ but took a break from alcohol during the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

“It is not easy to stay here all day long because most of us are used to life on the streets. But we have to tolerate living here because on the streets the risks of contracting the virus are high,” says Meitjie Maans (42).

“People still share cigarettes or drugs and put themselves at risk. I [deal with] the boredom by watching TV and sleeping. The temptations to get out of here and return to the streets are sometimes there but I try to remain positive at all times,” says Maans, who is originally from Ceres.

Strangely enough, even for Maans, is that they have the luxury of watching TV but no hot water to bath.

Diagnosed with TB a few years ago and having just recently recovered in April, Maans is grateful to be staying at the shelter and escape the winter chills on the streets. Before arriving here she was a heavy drinker but says after the Covid-19 outbreak she has decided to “take a break” from alcohol. Maans says due to withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and drugs, most homeless people are often “grumpy” and fights break out.

One study published in the journal Development Southern Africa investigated the health and well-being of homeless adults and children living on the streets in the Western Cape and Gauteng. It showed that sexually transmitted infections, TB, drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and malnutrition were prominent health issues in this group.

Life on the streets was very tough. But I’m glad that today I have found a home here [Culemborg]. I am grateful for the roof over my head and the hot meals.
Florentina Branot

It was also found that factors influencing health seeking behaviour among homeless people on the streets include an “inability to provide proof of residence and/or identification documentation, as well as discrimination by staff”.

In another study published in BioMed Central Health Services Research, it found that homeless people living on the street are “more prone to communicable, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and are less likely to access healthcare services”. Despite this, the study states: “There are no specific public healthcare services tailored to the needs of these communities, particularly if they are immigrants.”

Health services for the homeless?

Western Cape health spokesperson Mark van der Heever, says that the city of Cape Town, working with the department provided a full clinic service at the Strandfontein Temporary Emergency Shelter and “continues to deliver health services to the homeless at primary healthcare facilities”.

The Strandfontein site has since been closed.

“We continue ensuring that temperatures are taken daily and if there is a need, the homeless people are transported to our nearest health facilities for services and collection of chronic medications,” van der Heever said.

Zahid Badroodien, member of the mayoral committee for community services and health, says they have daily screenings at the Culemborg shelter. “Any person who screens positive for Covid-19 [symptoms] is referred to a public quarantine facility, or an isolation facility if they test positive,” says Badroodien.

Read: The dignity of people is being eroded by the abuse of power in petty ways

Earlier, the city came under fire from opposition parties for “dumping” homeless people under a bridge.

But Badroodien disputes this.

“We strongly object to all allegations that the city has dumped the homeless under a bridge in the CBD. This group of homeless individuals, who were part of the Strandfontein camp, steadfastly refused accommodation at smaller shelters and opted to return to the CBD to be closer to the expanded Culemborg Safe Space,” says Badroodien.

The Culemborg shelter can accommodate 250 people but because of the Covid-19 regulations they are only accommodating 96 people.

Supporting shelters for the homeless

Badroodien says the city has no direct role or oversight in the establishment and running of shelters.

“That said, we partner with non-governmental organisations who operate shelters and provide funding and resources where possible, particularly during winter when the demand for shelter space increases due to the inclement weather. So far, this financial year we have disbursed R50 million to organisations working with vulnerable groups, including street people,” he says.

“The money will go towards building extra capacity that should sustain the organisations for at least six months. The city has also established safe spaces which act as pre-shelters to rough sleepers,” says Badroodien.

It is not easy to stay here all day long because most of us are used to life on the streets. But we have to tolerate living here because on the streets the risks of contracting the virus are high.
Meitjie Maans

In a joint response, Esther Lewis, spokesperson of the Western Cape departments of social development and health, told Spotlight the departments provided personal protective equipments (PPE) to the various shelters and continue to do so.

“The PPE include sanitisers and face shields. The department of social development doesn’t own or directly manage shelters,” says Lewis.

There are also social workers at the shelters who provide individual counselling, referral and support services, she says.

And hot water?

On the lack of hot water at Culemborg, executive support officer for Badroodien, Pierre Gertenbach, says they are aware of the concerns and “the matter would be addressed in due course”.

Carlos Mesquitta, spokesperson for the outreach organisation, the Homeless Action Committee, says they are aware of the challenges homeless people face at some shelters.

“That people are not provided with hot water to bathe and that they have to use buckets is a violation of their human dignity,” says Mesquitta, adding that there is still a long way before the “real” issues affecting homeless people in Cape Town can be addressed.

Food packs at the Culemborg shelter as part of the
Food packs at the Culemborg shelter as part of the Ubuntu project for ‘Restoring Human Dignity’. Picture: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Will improvements be sustained after the pandemic?

With the country moving to level 2 from Tuesday, Cape Town officials say there are no plans of taking down the Culemborg Shelter. The city plans to make it a permanent shelter for the homeless.

For people such as Shaun Julies, it’s a relief to hear of these plans.

“Of course the treatment here [Culemborg] is not a five-star one, but it’s better than living on the streets. I will be happy if they can make this our permanent residency,” says Julies.

But while some solutions are being found at local and municipal level, there appears to be little direction or help from national government. Recently Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, in an answer to a parliamentary question, admitted that there “is currently no clarity at national level in terms of the lead department dealing with homelessness”.

Zulu said in provinces such as Gauteng, there was no specific budget for homeless people or social workers assigned to work with the homeless other than those using the shelters.

*This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.


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