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Encampments offer homeless people agency, community and a sense of value

Carlos Mesquita writes that encampments may be horrible eyesores, but they also offer homeless people agency, community and a sense of value in themselves. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Carlos Mesquita writes that encampments may be horrible eyesores, but they also offer homeless people agency, community and a sense of value in themselves. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Nov 10, 2021


Homeless encampments like Green Point’s tent city are the latest big issue in the ongoing debate about how to address Cape Town’s homeless crisis.

And as I am about to announce a potentially controversial plan to alleviate the situation until we get clear direction from the state, I decided to take the advice of my predecessor, Danny, who had a birthday celebration this past week and who seemed to suggest I find my answers on the street.

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So in an attempt to add to my reasons why one would rather stay on the streets than the alternative the City always offers, I hit the streets to visit a few tent cities and this is what I found:

Residents say encampments are often dangerous fire hazards where drug use and violence are prevalent. I think they are also examples of homeless people attempting to meet their own needs and make their own homes.

What if the encampments could offer clues that could help us end homelessness? They certainly assist those of us offering services. Before we bulldoze these communities, we should learn what we can about them.

So I spent the past three weeks walking around to various encampments and exchanging cigarettes for conversations. I learnt that homeless people group together for safety and mutual exchange. They respond to societal ostracising by forming deep friendships with one another that they’re reluctant to abandon, even for housing.

And in their makeshift community, they fill roles that help raise their self-esteem. It was like having an “aha” moment with my previously homeless self. A lot of things made sense to me.

Johan, although only 28, calls himself “the therapist”. He listens to his homeless friends talk and he tries to offer advice.

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“This life can take your soul. People are so indifferent to you.”

Like every homeless person I spoke to, Johan was aware of people’s displeasure with encampments.

Johan has been homeless for eight years. He has stayed in shelters and been to jail, but he always ends up back on the streets. People need him here, he said.

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Most of the people living under the highway offer services or supplies to one another and they all try to take care of each other.

On the streets, he can earn his income, be there for his friends. These small acts of agency have helped him feel more like a human being than any other programme or intervention he’s participated in. If he ever finds housing, he wants his friends to come with him.

“Being there for other people gives you a reason, something to wake up for in the morning,” Johan said. “We all need that, us especially.”

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I then meet Anant, previously from Mitchells Plain. He started using drugs when he found out his wife was cheating on him and ended up in jail. He lost his car, his address and, finally, this.

Obtaining an official proof of identification is the first and most difficult hurdle in what is already a daunting journey back to society, he says. Down the road, I meet Gavin. He came to Cape Town at 16. After he came out as gay, his family started physically, mentally and sexually abusing him. He’s been homeless ever since.

Sibusiso says local gangs exploit and attack homeless people. He’s been beaten up multiple times and coerced into committing crimes.

His encampment – a small community of LGBTQIA+ homeless people – helps him feel safer. They all look out for one another.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about safety. People don’t understand that we all want to become better people,” Sibusiso said.

Next, I meet Dawn, an unofficial “community mom”.

Dawn helps keep everyone get fed and watered. She’s the glue of their little tribe, lifting their spirits on difficult days.

Gus, 23, is staying at a shelter but this week again finds himself at Dawn’s tent, catching up. Dawn might be more of a mom than he’s ever had. Born in Pretoria, he’s spent most of his life being shuffled around the foster care system.

He’s been homeless since he was 14. He spent the afternoon cracking jokes about his romantic struggles.

Encampments may be horrible eyesores. But they also offer homeless people something that may be more helpful than taking the right medicines and entering the right programmes: agency, community and a sense of value in themselves.

This was the main lesson I took from the camps: home is not just where your house is. It’s where your people are, where you feel needed and important.

We can’t forget that in the rush to house homeless people and clear public spaces in Cape Town.

Neels is one of the few homeless people who have regular contact with their mothers. “Every time I see her leave, I think, maybe next time I’ll go with her.” His mother is still trying to bring him home. Every time she can afford the ticket for him to Durban, she buys and sends it to him. Every six months she visits him and pleads with him to return. She buys him clothes, toiletries and groceries. She cries. Sometimes he cries. It’s hard.

* 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. He can be reached at [email protected]

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

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