Covid-19 pushes Durban’s homeless to the forefront

The eThekwini municipality has long ignored the homeless in Durban. Now the coronavirus lockdown has forced it to acknowledge their existence and rope in help to meet their needs.

“The city used to ask us not to feed the homeless, now they are begging us to [do it],” a charity worker in Durban said this week. The man was responding to a statement put out by the municipality that appealed for help as the “scourge wreaks havoc”.

“The eThekwini Municipality is humbly appealing for donations in the form of non-perishable food products, hand sanitisers, liquid soap, masks, disposable surgical gloves, bottled water and hygiene packs,” the statement read.

On the eve of the lockdown on Thursday 26 March 2020, thousands of the city’s destitute were herded to the Durban Exhibition Centre, not far from the city hall. There, 1 800 people were screened over three days and the sickest and most immunocompromised among them were triaged before being transported to 14 buildings, camps and temporary shelters around Durban.

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The night before, a hot wind blew down desolate city streets, carrying litter and the pungent smell of urine, driving home eThekwini’s dire need for public wash houses.

The silhouettes of some of the estimated 2 000 homeless people who sleep rough in Durban could be seen in the shadows as they huddled together on pavements beneath threadbare blankets. The best advice to avoid the virus didn’t apply to them.

As one aid worker said: “They can’t afford hand sanitiser, they don’t have good access to clean water, they are often malnourished, they live in cramped conditions in shelters, and they have existing health conditions like HIV and TB.”

Bringing in the carers

Just before the lockdown, eThekwini officials called in people like Ebee Khan and Zahid Fakey, who, along with friends, have been feeding up to 2 000 homeless people a day in the city. Every night for years, the men and their teams have darted around in vans loaded with packed sandwiches, fruit and juice. 

Twenty-four hours before lockdown, Khan, armed with a loud-hailer, looked like a wartime general fondly addressing his troops. Homeless men addressed him as “umkhulu”, isiZulu for grandfather. He had a light touch, his dire warnings punctuated with friendly quips and words of care.

“Cover your face if you cough. Keep your distance, brothers and sisters. We love you. Your space is your life. There, go get a chow, brother.”

Khan and his helpers marshalled the poor in neat lines and executed feeding with military precision. People arrived hobbling on crutches, some quiet and downtrodden, holding their hands together as if in prayer. Others seemed exuberant and cajoled one another. 

Undated: eThekwini residents, most of them homeless, arrive to get food parcels provided by the charitable organisation Feeding the Poor.
Undated: eThekwini residents, most of them homeless, arrive to get food parcels provided by the charitable organisation Feeding the Poor.

Ridwaan Govender, a young man from Phoenix, lives with his brother and a friend near Grey Street in Durban’s city centre. Govender was unsure how to react to the coronavirus and the lockdown. His prized possessions were in a tatty bag slung across his chest.

“The police normally shoot us with plastic pellets. It hurts. I am not sure what we are going to do now. I hear this thing is serious, that you get a fever. I don’t know what we would do without the food from umkhulu and his friends.” 

No coping without charities

Like Khan, Fakey, his wife and his 20-year-old daughter are members of the Muslim-funded organisation Feeding the Poor. He says the pandemic has brought the daily reality of the city’s vulnerable into sharp relief for those more fortunate. 

“It is our gift to serve these people,” said Fakey. “They come from all walks of life. Poverty knows no race or religion. To see how these people live every day is a reminder that we have so much.”

Beyond food, the homeless need access to clean toilets and bathrooms. “The city needs a comprehensive approach,” Fakey said.

In the crisis, the administration is undoubtedly more attuned to the many vulnerable groups catered for by charities. If it were not for their work, the government simply wouldn’t be able to cope. 

Clive Pillay is the co-ordinator of the Nelson Mandela Community Youth Centre in Chatsworth, from where a group of volunteers is feeding poor senior citizens in the area. He says they leave food on doorsteps and holler to people from their front gates to check on their health and welfare.

Volunteers from Feeding the Poor in Durban ensure people queue far apart from each other as they wait for food parcels ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown. The organisation has been supplying meals to the homeless for years.
Undated: Volunteers from Feeding the Poor ensure people queue far apart from each other as they wait for food parcels ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown. The organisation has been supplying meals to the homeless for years.

“As food comes in from donors, we go out to pensioners. They are very organised here. The old people used to meet in centres to be fed, but now they can’t leave home. We are checking in on them, getting lists of people who are desperate and who don’t have family or live alone.”

The principal of Lotus Primary School, Lazarus Soobramoney, is a member of a church in Shallcross that is feeding and ministering to the needy. Before the closure of the school and the lockdown, 343 children were each fed two meals a day, entirely sourced from private donations. Now, the lockdown means the children are not eating regularly.

“At the moment we can’t say what is happening. Many will be going hungry,” said Soobramoney. But, he added, people are being civic-minded and generous.

“We are trying to get grocery hampers of canned goods that we can distribute. But the problem is now we have to be careful when we go out not to get infected or pass on the infection. I have masks and sanitiser, people want to help, but it’s a thin line.”

Promises not kept

While some benefit from charities, others seem to have to rely on stretched or inefficient state services. Community activist Vanessa Burger works with hostel dwellers who live 20 to a room in places like Glebelands. The city estimates there are upwards of 181 000 people at 10 apartheid-designed migrant labour hostels in Durban alone.

Burger says residents have been promised hand sanitisers and cleaning products, but these have not materialised at Glebelands. A resident told her: “There is no cleaning, no awareness… only the smell of dirt here.”

Raymond Perrier is the director of the Denis Hurley Centre, which cares for the needs of the most impoverished people of Durban. He is also the chairperson of the eThekwini task team on homelessness that was established 18 months ago, creating a useful forum for officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to engage.

Undated: Chatsworth volunteer Brandon Pillay delivering food to pensioner Allama Pillay.
Undated: Chatsworth volunteer Brandon Pillay delivering food to pensioner Allama Pillay.

The existence of the task team has given the eThekwini council an advantage over other cities by allowing it to draw on a host of experts. Perrier says that, as a result, the municipality “may be making it up as they go along, but often they are listening to our expertise”.

“We are juggling a number of variables [such as] an unknown number of homeless needing shelter… in the end, twice the anticipated number. We need to create social distancing but at the same time contain people from roaming the streets. We are helping many cope with addiction withdrawal, which becomes for them a greater priority than the virus. The police, who are usually the greatest fear for the homeless, now they are being used to protect them.” 

Creating and meeting expectations

Perrier says NGOs have limited resources but the ability to work quickly, whereas they are partnering with a government that has extensive resources but a culture of “acting slowly and cautiously”.  

“Through all that we have coped, driven by some exceptional individuals like the deputy mayor, Belinda Scott, and Linda Morrison, head of the NGO We Are Durban. They and dozens of NGO and government people have barely slept for six days.”

Khan says the crisis provides an opportunity for the city to improve its approach to the homeless and gather good data. But it is a difficult task, he says. 

“It is a chance for the city to cooperate more around homelessness. We need to acknowledge the homeless, to open our hearts to them. But, when you take control of people like this, they are going to have an expectation that you will give them something better. And you have to keep them occupied, help with addictions and harness the skilled among them.

Undated: Community healthcare worker Tisha Pillay delivering food items to a Bayview Flats resident known only as Mrs Naidoo.
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