COLUMN: Carlos Mesquita writes that as we seem to be entering the third wave, he decided to let some other voices speak of their Covid-19 experience. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA)
COLUMN: Carlos Mesquita writes that as we seem to be entering the third wave, he decided to let some other voices speak of their Covid-19 experience. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA)

Cape Town homeless share their Covid-19 pandemic stories

By Carlos Mesquita Time of article published Jun 2, 2021

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As we at our house grapple with possible eviction and as we seem to be entering the third wave, I decided to let some other voices speak of their Covid-19 experience.

But time has revealed that for those on the front-line, there is still uncertainty. At one point, it almost seemed as if Cape Town’s homeless crisis might be solved for good.

However, not all homeless residents found lockdown to be a success.

While most shelters obeyed the no-eviction policy during lockdown, some residents could not remain inside for the entire period.

“Behavioural issues, for example, meant that some were forced to return to the streets,” says an anonymous shelter assistant.

Nonetheless, many outcomes for homeless people from the Covid-19 lockdown have been positive.

Jason’s story: he has been homeless in Cape Town for six years, and was brought to the Safe Space shelter in Bellville at the start of the pandemic. After a couple of weeks he was moved into another shelter in Bellville. It was difficult to be around people who did not care about social distancing.

“I’m now around people that I can interact with and feel safe around but… it’s meant that people can’t really see their families, they can’t interact with friends.”

Bongani’s story: he admits he feels lucky. “It seems like I hit crisis at the right timing with the government and everything like that, they really, really are looking after everyone, I haven’t heard of one person that’s fallen through the cracks.

“Anyone who’s got half a brain can look around and see these people bending over backwards… so I think it would be wrong for anyone to ask anything more.”

Nandipha’s story: she became homeless in 2018 after difficult circumstances with her neighbour.

She was referred to The Haven who placed her into several different shelters during the time she was homeless. She has been living at the Culemborg Safe Space since Strandfontein closed.

She says: “I don’t know how long I’m going to be in here for.”

Alongside her anxieties about the virus, the lack of certainty in her living situation has had a negative impact on her.

Despite issues with her mental and physical health over lockdown, she claims she received no support from the Strandfontein staff or Culemborg team.

The “put everyone together” policy did not work at Strandfontein and doesn’t work at Culemburg.

There was a rape in Strandfontein and there have been stabbings at Culemborg. Nandipha says: “You can’t expect to put all these people in the same space and ask them to stay in the room, give them sub-standard food and expect nothing to happen.”

For Nandipha, housing is not the only way to resolve homelessness.

“You can’t just fix a person and put them in a home, I know that now from experiencing it myself… there has to be care packages put in place.”

“There’s no way in Cape Town you could ever starve because there’s that many charities trying to support homeless people… but come a pandemic and there’s not a homeless person in sight. They’ve managed to home every single person in some form… so how can you not do that in everyday life?”

Peter’s story: he has been living on the streets of Cape Town for the last two years, but has been homeless for 10 years, since a credit file error prevented him from accessing any funds or credit.

At the start of lockdown, he began a campaign called Suffering, arguing that while those who were visibly sleeping rough were quickly housed in temporary accommodation, many like him who slept at the station, were forgotten.

He suggests while it might appear to be better inside than where many homeless people were before, “it’s just a different set of problems”.

“The huge advantage is getting up in the morning and being able to walk four steps, turn on the shower and grab a shower whenever you want.

“Normally if I want to have a shower, that requires a hell of a lot of co-ordination. It is the minuscule things that people take for granted if you have a house that are the big changes for a homeless person… This was just back to normality for me.

“The government took the credit for solving the problem, as they put it, but actually nothing that the government did or the major charities did, did anything to solve the problem.”

In fact, “the people who rose to the challenge were the grassroots organisations”.

* Carlos Mesquita and a handful of others formed HAC (the Homeless Action Committee) that lobbies for the rights of the homeless. He also manages Our House in Oranjezicht, which is powered by the Community Chest.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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