Durban - Sleeping under an additional blanket or turning on a heater is not an option to keep the cold weather at bay for the Durban homeless.
For Jerome Kowlessar and Indhren Pather, all they can do to keep warm is rummage through the city trash for large sheets of plastic to ward off the cold.
“Plastic is the best because it keeps the rain out, but you can’t cover your head in plastic, so the rain and cold still get you,” said Kowlessar.
The pair sleep on a pavement in Greyville. For now this is their home. All their belongings are lugged around with them, packed in tog bags and backpacks.
They are two of Durban’s homeless, whose bed is concrete, or if you are “lucky” the softer grass of a municipal park.
Kowlessar, 42, has been living on the streets for 15 years.
As an only child, he found it hard to adjust to living with relatives after his parents died when he was much younger.
Originally from Overport, he moved back to Durban after staying with relatives in Umzinto. He now has to fend for himself.
As a car guard in Prince Street, he makes about R50 a day. Enough to buy at least one meal a day. He used to sleep on the doorsteps of the shops until “metro police and security guards chased us away”.
Kowlessar spoke to the Daily News as he was going through his morning ritual. He was up at the crack of dawn to avoid being spotted by police. There is no fluffing of pillows for him. To rest his head, he places his bag under it – which also keeps the bag safe from other vagrants.
Making his bed means bundling up a green sheet made of heavy duty plastic. Then a white one. Even a piece of cardboard he sleeps on is folded into his bag. He sleeps fully clothed, including shoes.
Next to him, Pather does the same. He wears a brown tracksuit, so new it still has the creases as it was folded on the store shelf.
His shoes, too, are new. Black school shoes.
“A good Samaritan blessed me with these on Monday,” he beams.
Unlike Kowlessar, Pather had a family – a wife, and three children.
He said he left them in Pietermaritzburg after having domestic troubles with his wife.
“I came to Durban to find work and start a new life. I used to work in a shoe factory shop, but ended up buying and selling things, anything, metal, clothes whatever I can to survive.”
His greying beard was neatly trimmed. “We are not like the kids who sleep in the street because they want drugs,” he said.
Said Kowlessar: “We are clean. We shower, brush our teeth and go off to work like normal people.”
The pair shared a bottle of water to wash their faces after gathering their stuff, even the strands of plastic that have unwoven from the plastic bags.
When it gets too cold, windy or rains they move to a nearby bridge or a tree.
Besides not being able to afford the about R30 a night to check into a homeless shelter, they feel safer under the night sky than in a shelter.
“In shelters, your shoes can be stolen off your feet while you sleep. And the conditions are not good.”
Major Moya Hay of the Salvation Army in Morningside agrees.
“In shelters you get people from all walks of life. People who live in the streets are in survival mode and when they are hungry they steal. Shoes are a really good commodity,” she said.
Hay and a committee run a soup kitchen feeding about 70 people twice a week. Once a month, they also hand out a toiletry pack with toothpaste, a toothbrush, facecloth, soap and a razor.
Hygiene tends to be a problem, especially in overnight shelters where people come in by a certain time and have to leave at a certain time the next morning.
“Some can be so uncaring as to where they go to the bathroom and the general mess they leave because they know they are checking out. The burden then rests on the management of the shelter. This is over and above them having to deal with sometimes difficult people who come in high on drugs, drunk or with a bad attitude,” said Hay.
On the other hand, she said there were some “chancers” who “financially abuse” homeless people, desperate for a roof over their heads.
“There is no expectation of five-star accommodation, but there should be some dignity, especially in mixed (gender) shelters.”
She believes some homeless people value the sense of freedom of living on the streets.
“It’s a tough life. We all make mistakes and the difference between us is that some of us have support,” she said.
For Kowlessar and Pather, they are each other’s support. Sleeping next to each other for protection and whatever warmth they can get.