Pretoria - “No one makes a decision to be homeless. No one sets out with that goal in mind.”
These were the words of 22-year-old Terrence Shumba, who fled his home country of Zimbabwe in search of a better life in Pretoria.
“Three years ago I jumped the border at Beit Bridge. I was arrested and deported more than once,” he said.
The better life he was looking for always evaded him and now, after being homeless and on the streets for years, Shumba has found a home at PEN’s Compassion Centre on Stanza Bopape (formerly Church) Street.
The Night Church, as it has come to be known, opened more than two years ago and provides a place of safety for the city’s homeless.
Run by Wayne Renkin, the church offers a place to sleep for 20 homeless people in the winter, has hot showers, coffee, laundry facilities, lockers for personal belongings and a kitchen.
The church is run by three democratically elected homeless people, to instill in them a sense of ownership.
The homeless are not given food. They bring their own food to cook each evening. They pay R7 an evening to sleep at the shelter and the money is used to buy cleaning products to keep the church clean. They can rent lockers, which double up as a residential address, for R10 a month.
From the money the church can buy bread and coffee for the people who seek refuge there.
This way, the homeless are not victims and learn to look after themselves.
Each month more than 80 people pass through the church, more than half of whom Renkin knows personally.
“This is not a soup kitchen, because we believe that if you give the homeless everything they need, they have no need to work. Here we give them a reason to do things for themselves,” Renkin said.
He said when you gave someone everything they needed, you victimised them further.
“You don’t acknowledge them as equals. We can do everything for ourselves and we do,” he said.
The church is open between 6pm and 10pm from Monday to Friday and even offers the homeless internet services, to help them get back on their feet.
Shumba now works for the church, cleaning and providing other services.
He said people often had the wrong perception of homeless people, thinking of them as dangerous criminals.
“To be honest, street people don’t have time to do crime, they are too busy thinking and hustling to make a living,” he said.
He said many of the people he met on the streets were educated and talented, with some even having degrees and diplomas.
“Most people are trapped. They want to get off the streets, but they just need a helping hand,” he said.
He said he had never met a homeless person who was happy with being on the streets.
“No one wishes to be in this situation.
“But because people see them as bad people, they often start acting the way people think of them,” he said.
His dream for the future is to stand up for the homeless, destitute people living on the street.
“Homeless people are normal people just like you and me. Most of them have more life experience than so-called normal people. They carry great potential,” he said.
Another local at the church, who did not want to be named, ran away from a life of abuse in Eldorado Park when he was 9 years old.
“It all started when my dad passed away in 1990. I was adopted by my uncles, who punished me so much that I was afraid to do anything,” he told the Pretoria News.
He lived on the streets of Joburg for more than a year before being taken to a place of safety in Boksburg.
He ran away several times and was eventually sent to Boys Town.
“When I was 15, I ran away from there too and ended up in the wrong company.
“I stole cars and smoked weed and ended up in jail,” he said.
While in prison for two years, he finished his schooling and started studying finance.
“I even got two distinctions in my studies and I wanted to be an accountant, but then I found out you cannot work in finance with a criminal record,” he said.
Now he spends his weeks at the Night Church in Pretoria, hustling to make a living. Over weekends he visits his 4-year-old son in Soweto.
He plans to study computer science and is working on a business plan in facial recognition software.
“I don’t consider myself homeless. I am just hustling until I can afford my own place,” he said.