Long Read | Durban’s homeless seek shelter

Life is tough for the thousands who sleep on the streets of KwaZulu-Natal’s major port city. While some organisations try to help, police and hospitals often don’t treat them as kindly.

As cold weather sweeps across South Africa, chilling the usually balmy coastline, thousands of people in Durban, some in their early teens, sleep in tunnels, under bridges and on pavements.

It is estimated that more than 4 000 people sleep on Durban’s streets. A 2016 study by the Human Science Research Council noted that “seeking employment in the city, family trauma (including family conflict and death of a close family member), individual substance abuse and the lack of an alternative place to go” are all factors that lead to homelessness in the port city. 

In March 2020, when the government enforced a hard lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19, police rounded up homeless people and put them in temporary camps run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the municipality. In these, homeless men and women were offered three meals a day, and a mattress and blanket. Some still stay in these camps but many went back to the streets when the restrictions were lifted.

Raymond Perrier is the director of the Denis Hurley Centre, a church-based organisation that offers homeless people services under the auspices of the Nkosinathi Project for the Homeless. He says that despite the social and economic devastation brought on by the pandemic, it has had some positive effects on the homeless “because all the stakeholders, including government, the NGOs and aid organisations began to take the plight of the homeless seriously and their needs, including health services”.

Life and death on the streets

Those on the street live difficult, dangerous lives. At one of the tunnels where some of Durban’s homeless sleep, not far from the busy Berea train station, we are greeted by a number of dejected, sad people. As we arrive some of the homeless youth are filing into two minibus taxis heading to the funeral of Smangele Mnguni, 23, a homeless woman who died in hospital a few days earlier after suffering from tuberculosis (TB) complications. 

Those left behind at the tunnel – there is not enough space for everyone in the taxis – lament her death, saying Mnguni wouldn’t have died if she had remained in one of the camps and stuck to her TB treatment. 

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Siphiwe Gumede, 32, says he also left the camp because he couldn’t get drugs to feed his cravings. Gumede’s right leg was amputated in hospital a few years ago after security guards shot him for allegedly breaking into a house in Isipingo. He uses two old crutches to move around.

Gumede lives in a plastic-covered shelter that sits between the Dalton Men’s Hostel and Dalton train station. He has been there for three years. He says he comes from a “well-off family”. All his siblings are teachers, nurses and other professionals. He left his home in Umbumbulu in 2011 after police pulled him from an angry crowd accusing him of breaking into their homes and stealing appliances and other valuables.

“After I came out from the hospital, there was no question of going back home. I came to live here in the streets,” he says.

He pleads with motorists to spare him some change at intersections. Then, to forget about his predicament, Gumede pools his money with others to buy a fix of whoonga from a local “merchant”. 

18 May 2021: Some homeless people smoke whoonga, a form of heroin, through a short glass tube.

When we arrive he is with other young men and women smoking together. As he is speaking to us, he mixes the powdery whoonga with water in a small container. He stirs thoroughly then draws some of the mixture into a syringe, leaving the rest for his comrades, who carry their own syringes. He tightens a piece of cloth around his arm so he can see his vein easily. He then plunges the needle in, quickly emptying its contents. He becomes glassy, spits on the floor and then goes into something like a trance. For the next 20 minutes he is unable to speak.

“I find myself having such cravings daily that I always try by all means to get a fix,” Gumede says a little later. “Also, when I think about how I lost my leg, how my life has turned, I become hopeless and only a fix numbs my nerves.”

Gumede says he has tried several times to stop using whoonga. “I once had a loving family but they have given up on me because of my drug addiction and my constant troubles with the community because of stealing.”

18 May 2021: Siphiwe Gumede, 32, injects whoonga, a drug he has tried several times to stop using.

Ramadaan Mptandala, 38, is from a village in Tanzania and also lives on the street. He says he hitchhiked from Dar es Salaam to Durban on trucks, a 3 889km journey.

“I was attracted by the tales we were told about South Africa, about how its cities’ streets are tarred with gold. Opportunities abound on all corners. We were told life is nice and glitzy … just like in Europe … Black people like me are living large, eating good, fresh food and living in palatial homes,” he says. 

“But when I reached here things were not the same as people said. It was tough living here. There was a lot of xenophobia. Jobs and other opportunities are hard to come by. That’s how I found myself sleeping [on] the streets, where crime and grime are the order of the day. If I save enough money, I would go back to my country because although life was tough there, it was not this bad.” Mptandala sells clothes and other stuff on the streets and in the markets.

Thinathi Plaatjies, 28, lives on the street with her boyfriend. One of a number of homeless young women in Durban, she is from Willowvale, about 100km southwest of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. “My boyfriend goes out to hustle so that we can eat and smoke. But many other girls in my position have to sell their bodies so that they can get money for a fix. Sometimes a man will promise them R50 and then after sleeping with them, they only give them R10 or nothing. Some men attack the women.

“My family has tried, shame, to get me out of here. I have been to several drug rehabilitation facilities but couldn’t give up the habit. Eventually I return to the streets. My family have also taken me to the traditional doctors because they felt I was bewitched as it is not easy for me to stay at home for long.”

18 May 2021: Thinathi Plaatjies, 28, stands next to the plastic shelters at Dalton in Durban.

A 25-year-old woman, who asks not to be named, says she left her home in Inanda in 2014 after her aunt chased her away for having a boyfriend. “My mother died when I was five and I was raised by my aunt, who was abusive and made me do all the housework while she and her children sat around doing nothing,” she says. 

“When I came to the city I was taken to Point where I became a prostitute. At first I was paid money. Next moment I was made to sleep with men and paid in drugs or food. Two years ago I was thrown out on the street by the pimp, saying I’m ugly, I talk too much and I have a bad attitude. That’s how I came to live here.”

Sbongiseni Mthethwa, 25, who left his home in KwaMashu because he feared “community members’ wrath” after being caught stealing, says on the streets, like in prison, homeless people are often forced to join a numbers gang for protection and survival. 

“I am a 28 Gang [member] … I am protected by fellow members. If you don’t join, people take advantage of you and they take away what you have worked so hard to get. Life in the streets is very tough and dangerous. I’ve seen people being stabbed for their belongings,” he says. Mthethwa wants to beat his drug addiction and get work so he can support his five-year-old child.

18 May 2021: Sbongiseni Mthethwa, 25, left his home in KwaMashu township because he feared the “community members’ wrath” after he was caught stealing.

Saving lives

The Denis Hurley Centre offers drug addicts care, education and community assistance. It feeds more than 1 000 homeless people each week, and offers showers and clean clothes. It also runs a free clinic, helping those affected by HIV, Aids and drug-resistant TB. The centre’s officials and nurses go out to people living on the streets to offer life-saving medicines. It also welcomes migrants from across Africa, helping them to sort out their documents and become integrated into the local community.

Sister Cathy Murugan, a trained social worker and head of the clinic, says they take homeless people who want to stop taking drugs through a painful but necessary four-week period in which they are counselled and given medication to help them detox. Their families are also contacted to support the process.

“After we are satisfied that they are ready, we enroll them [in] the government-run rehabilitation centre located in Newlands, north of Durban. There they undergo an intensive two-month rehabilitation programme. After that they are released to their families or are taken to shelters where they are also closely monitored,” she says.

18 May 2021: Cathy Murugan sits at her desk at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban. She is a social worker who assists drug users in recovery.

She says not everyone who goes through the rehabilitation programme successfully quits drugs. “But those who make it and are able to move on with their lives brighten our lives. They give us hope to continue and be of service to the homeless people. We don’t give up because even God does not give up on us,” she says.

The centre also works with NGOs, government agencies and private companies to enable former addicts to learn a trade or artisanal skill to help them earn a living to support themselves and their families. 

One of the satellite clinics near Dalton station offers homeless people medicines for TB and HIV. Mpume Ngcobo is one of the nurses at the clinic. “We go out to look for them, sometimes we find them, at other times we find them high on drugs, but we still give them their medications. Those seeking food to take with their medications are offered. This clinic has saved many lives.”

18 May 2021: Tracy Bolt prepares bread with chakalaka and polony for visitors to the Denis Hurley Centre in central Durban.

One of the success stories is former homeless woman Tracy Bolt, 57. She is now the centre’s main cook, responsible for making meals for thousands of homeless men and women. She lived on the streets from 1989 to 2008. She says she comes from a broken family and authorities took her and her three siblings away from her mother and placed them in childcare centres and foster homes.

“Without this centre, I probably would be in the street, or even dead. I used to smoke and live on the street and come to this church to beg for money. At some stage they stopped giving us money because they learned that we used this money to buy drugs. They offered us food instead. After eating I would clean the place and they offered to help me to ‘straighten up’ and quit drugs. It took me some time but eventually I was able to come clean. Now I am free of drugs and have a comfortable place I call home. I thank God for this,” says Bolt.

Facing and fighting prejudice 

Some Durban city goers, residents and traders blame the homeless and drug addiction for the rampant crime in the central business district. Mcebisi Kunene, one of the fresh fruit and vegetable sellers, says homeless men, pejoratively known as amaphara (parasites), rob people in broad daylight, grabbing bags, weaves off women’s heads, wallets, phones and other accessories. 

“It is bad here, and we see it every day. Before we used to chase them away and hit them but police came for us when they were injured. Now we just look on and do nothing. The city’s crime rate will not go down unless the homeless are driven away from and out of the city,” he says.

But homeless and human rights organisations say criminals commit crimes knowing very well that homeless people will be blamed or punished for them. They say the South African Police Service seem to have the same attitude, and their tactics reflect their prejudice. Many homeless people say they fear police raids in which they are often assaulted. 

But the eThekwini Municipality defends the role played by the police in dealing with crime in certain hotspots. Msawakhe Mayisela, eThekwini Municipality spokesperson, says the City is doing everything in its powers to render services to homeless people while at the same time protecting people against crime.

“Being a developmental local government, the municipality has identified the need to address the issue of homelessness and related social ills within a context of multi-sectoral approach,” says Mayisela. “This process allows the municipality to engage all relevant stakeholders in pursuit of developing an integrated programme. This includes the engagement of homeless people to be part of the development of the relevant solution to their plight.”

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Monique Marks heads up the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology and has done extensive studies and reports on Durban’s homeless population over the years. She says Durban has “by far the best weather for homelessness because it’s warm most of the year compared to places like Pretoria and Cape Town”. This is a global phenomenon. San Francisco has very high numbers of homeless people because it is in California, the warmest state in the US. Marks says homeless people, including those in Durban, have adopted “survival mechanisms” that makes them resilient and able to survive in the “harshest of conditions”. 

To alleviate homelessness, Marks believes government entities, including the municipality, the police and the Department of Social Welfare, need to extend basic services without prejudice. “The first thing that is required of the government is to provide safe spaces for people to sleep. Those can be what I call frugal institutions. They don’t need to be very expensive. They need to provide, basically, for shelter, for ablution, for people to be able to wash their clothes and store their possessions, as few as they are,” she says, adding that the eThekwini Municipality, working with NGOs, provided these shelters and services during the Covid-19 hard lockdown but only three remain open, despite a high demand for them.

“It is [a] blight that we don’t have a single [permanent] government-funded shelter except for the one for … women called Strollers, whose residents are doing very well. It is really critical that where there is public services and health, in government hospitals and clinics, that homeless people feel they can access services like healthcare and social welfare services without being pushed away or stigmatised, which is what often happens with people [who] are homeless. They are seen as worthless. They are seen as dirty. They are seen as problematic and often their experiences in public health and welfare facilities are very negative. That needs to change.

“Government needs to be instructing its professionals and officials about treating homeless people with dignity and care – not to treat them as sub-human. Both the South African Police Service and the Metro Police need to be sensitised around what it means to be homeless. They need to understand that being homeless is another form of living. Home for homeless people is the street.” Nonetheless, she adds, the government should work to give homeless people access to homes, so they can have shelter. 

“There are very few homeless people who say they want to live on the street for the rest of their lives,” she says.  

18 May 2021: Siphiwe Gumede crosses dirty water next to his shelter near Dalton Men’s Hostel in Durban. His leg was amputated after a security guard shot him for allegedly breaking into a house.
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