Life for the homeless locked out during lockdown

As South Africans stay at home, thousands of homeless people remain on the street. Cut off from their meagre sources of income, they face both police brutality and starvation.

Linden’s streets are quiet. The empty pavements carry no footsteps as the relentless rain beats down. The arty Joburg suburb, normally buzzing with life, is deep in a forced slumber. 

A small group of men sit on the corner outside a carpet shop, long gone out of business. Normally they would be yelling instructions to drivers parallel parking along 6th Street, going through garbage or working gardens in the surrounding homes.

But not today. It’s 4 April 2020, and the Covid-19 lockdown is in full force.

On this Saturday, the men sit in what has become their temporary home for years. There’s a roof sheltering their beds and their few belongings from the persistent rain. Linden is a smart choice. Local churches host soup kitchens and a few of the residents try to help the homeless. If it wasn’t for the lockdown, the nearby businesses – coffee shops, restaurants and retailers – would serve as sources of water, food and income.

“It’s tough,” says Samson*, a friendly man with messy dreadlocks. “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I want this to be over.”

Samson has worked as a recycler for a decade. He supports his girlfriend and their two children in Klerksdorp.

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“It’s sad. I’m here to provide. But now I can’t provide. Not for them, not for my friends here. Not even for me,” he says. “I can’t even buy a half loaf of bread today. With this corona thing, I have nothing.

“Some people help us. Some laugh at us. You see, we are no trouble. We go all over the streets. We move around the city. We keep the whole community clean. And then we make money so we can go to the rural areas, back to our homes.”

He and his friends talk with pride of the work they do: guarding cars, recycling, gardening. They are homeless, but they are also all hard-working men making a living – or at least they were, until recently.

“Now there is no work.” Tswane points to the recycling trolleys standing idle on the pavement. “Dumps are closed. Everything is closed. We just sit and wait.”

Jan is a gardener for some homes in the area. Now he’s broke. When asked if clients paid him to help him get through this time, he just shakes his head and laughs.

The scourge of homelessness

No census data is available but an estimate by the Human Sciences Resource Council in 2015 suggested there were 200 000 homeless people in South Africa, a number likely to be much higher today.

Numbers aside, the severity of the problem is evident in a single drive during lockdown. It is a sobering experience. Everywhere you look, there are homeless communities on the otherwise empty streets, desperate for help.

Most of them prefer to hang out in groups for mutual help and safety in uncertain times. Their solidarity is remarkable.

“Please help my brothers also,” says Ricardo as he gets a food parcel standing at a traffic light on a quiet street in Randburg. Behind him three figures stand in an empty lot, looking on.

President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of plans to help the homeless, but the roll-out was never going to be easy. Panyaza Lesufi, acting MEC of social development in Gauteng, published a list of schools to be converted into temporary lockdown shelters, but there are questions around how successful this has been. 

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Peter the car guard is quiet. He’s feeding breadcrumbs to pigeons. He watches them fly. “The police say we must go home and stay there. But where must I go? Here is my home. I can’t go anywhere,” he says with a hint of bitterness.

Two police officers in an unmarked vehicle approach the homeless Randburg group and complain that those on the streets don’t want to go to shelters.

“It’s not true. No one came to help us,” says Samson. “No one told us anything or explained anything.”

Tswane agrees with him. He sifts through rubbish and uses the local shelters. For a long time they provided him with food, a shower and somewhere to leave his trolley. “They are good people. They are all full already, even without the corona,” he says. “There are so many of us, you know.”

“The police came,” Samson says. “But they didn’t speak.”

He describes four men, three in police uniform, arriving by car on the night of 31 March. They came while the group slept and attacked them.

“They beat us. Not a little bit. They beat us a lot. Three of us got hurt. We ran to a park. But then the rains came. We came back here.”

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“I’m not leaving,” Peter says. “No. Where is it they think I can go?”

The experience they describe seems common among other homeless communities. “They just tell us to go away, but they don’t say where. They shout, ‘Go, go, go.’ They treat us like dogs,” says Ricardo in Darrenwood. “Mostly they just say, ‘Voetsek.’”

Ricardo and his partner, Palesa, who stands a short distance away, nervous, used to live in the streets of Windsor East. He says they couldn’t stay there, because the police “were too brutal”. When Ricardo is asked if he tried any of the available shelters, Palesa finally approaches. She says she went to a nearby shelter.

“It’s packed. And they can’t help with food. Everyone is waiting for help. It’s hard for them now.”

Shelters everywhere are struggling, according to those who try to get into them. 

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In Braamfontein police vans are everywhere, with no homeless in sight. Three men eventually emerge from an alleyway. They say they have tried the Hillbrow shelter.

“Everyone is going there,” Jerry says. “How can the shelter get food for everyone? And what if we get locked in there and someone is sick? Then we die of corona?”

The youngest of the three, Sipho, says, “That’s why I stay in the street. Yes, okay, I’m afraid here. But I know here. I think it’s safer.” A metro police car turns the corner. The trio flees.

Stepping in to help

While the government is making plans, many private organisations are stepping in. It’s a mammoth task. Melodie van Brakel runs the Tower of Life Men’s Shelter in Krugersdorp, a regular bed and meal for approximately 100 people a night.

“I’m now dealing with 600 to 800 people some days. They are so confused and afraid.” Despite this, she remains optimistic. “God provides. We’ve had no official funding or assistance, short of individual donations from kind people. We manage to provide food, even if it’s just bread some nights.”

NOSH Food Rescue NPC is another organisation that provides meals to the homeless during lockdown. Director Hanneke van Linge says, “We don’t get to lock down. Currently I’m collaborating with about 30 organisations. Also professional chefs are using their personal kitchens and skills to cook meals for distribution to homeless, pensioners, children at risk, informal settlements. The need is vast and the limitations imposed by the shutdown are challenging.”

But she is fully behind the government’s decision to go into lockdown.

“The government is trying right now. And people all over are trying to do what they can. This is a crisis, and it’s as complex as our society. It’s important to keep in mind that the problems we’re dealing with were always there and will be in days to come. My priority is not just crisis management, but also upscaling and building networks. When this is over let’s not forget that we are a society that came together to help people. And let’s never stop. It’s challenging. Hands-on help is scarce. Every avenue we had of raising funds just to afford running [has temporarily stopped]. But I have to keep going. We are needed more than ever.”

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“The corona will be gone soon,” Samson says with optimism. But the group is silent. Peter sits with his back to others. He feeds the pigeons as the rain keeps falling.

“Hey, please come by again,” asks Samson. “Please come check up on us.”

The following afternoon the rain is gone and the sunshine lifts the mood on the streets where Samson, Jan, Tswane and Peter are still sitting and waiting. Jokes are cracked while the pigeons peck at crumbs.

Samson smiles. “Something very special is happening in the world. We will see it after the darkness. Things will change.”

He tells Jan he needs to get glasses because he is short-sighted. He also asks for some books for them all. He promises to start writing down some of his thoughts too. Maybe he will have a book of his own one day, he muses.

Samson chips in: “After all this is over, we will meet. We can sit and talk and just be people.”

 *All names have been changed.

Correction, 15 April 2020: This article previously referred to the Human Sciences Resource Centre.

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