#changethestory: Homeless people are the leaders we refuse to see
by Lorenzo A Davids
On Saturday, October 10, the world commemorated World Homeless Day. I was part of an event that took place in the Groote Kerk in Adderley Street, Cape Town.
Dominee Riaan de Villiers generously made the church available to the homeless community to commemorate those who died on the streets of Cape Town the past year.
It was an emotional moment as the names of the dead were read out, and a candle was lit for each. Some 40 names were read out by the homeless community – their friends, partners and fellow sojourners – who died on our city’s streets while being homeless.
The service, led by Rev Annie Kirke, highlighted the stereotypes and injustices that homeless people are subjected to – simply because society engages with them as humans with a lesser dignity and worth. In some cases, they are treated as criminals – simply because they are homeless.
The irony was so stark: This church was the place where apartheid’s presidents were all sworn into office. On Saturday, that same spot was filled with dignified speeches made by homeless people.
I have had the privilege to journey with, and learn from them, over the past six months.
In April, they were all locked away as homeless people in Strandfontein. At the time, they were sleeping on the streets. They lived out of the rubbish bins in wealthy suburbs.
While at Strandfontein, they were infused with a sense of purpose to stand together against injustice and their criminalisation. They rejected the negative aspersions, mostly criminal, cast upon them.
They were never criminals. They were never a nuisance. They were never homeless – just houseless. Their stories are filled with anecdotes of being persecuted for being homeless.
Of being woken at 3am to be searched and their property removed. Of residents strewing broken glass in bins so that they cut their hands – some very seriously – while looking for food to eat or goods to use.
Today, they continue to rebuild their lives without a single “specialised intervention” other than three things: a permanent place to live, to be treated with respect, and to be given the freedom to make their own decisions about the pathways they wish to follow.
From the day they entered accommodation that respected and dignified them, they have used the freedom, the accommodation and the respect given them to immediately begin to rebuild their lives.
On Friday, they buried one of their friends who passed on. Siyabulela Gwegwe died from pneumonia.
They organised his funeral. They engaged with his family. They stood at his grave in dignified silence.
They buried Gwegwe with the dignity they always all had. People such as Peter and Lesley Wagenaar, Estelle Bosman and Women of Hope, Val and Charles Kadalie and Venetia Orgill all came alongside them to show trust and belief in their humanity.
To many in the city, they were just homeless men. To themselves, they were always men, fathers, brothers with dignity, purpose and a vision for their lives. All they lacked was a house.
These men and women are teaching society new narratives about homelessness. They are also teaching us more about ourselves, our biases and our prejudices.
Six months ago, they were sleeping on the streets of the City. Six months ago they were skarreling through the rubbish bins of Sea Point, Vredehoek and the City. Today, still living in the City bowl in permanent accommodation, they are shining lights of leadership.
Consider this: They were always shining lights of leadership. But stigma, NIMBYism, and our arrogance did not wish to see their leadership.
We only saw their old clothes and their regular searches through our rubbish bins.
These are the same men. They were always leaders. All they lacked was a house, our respect and the freedom to choose.
* Lorenzo A Davids is chief executive of the Community Chest.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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