The Company Gardens. Picture: Cape Town Studio Apartment
Charlene Matafin was one of the first people Kerry Hoffman met the first time she parked her car at the bottom of The Company’s Garden and spent the morning with the homeless people living there.

“I saw this lady standing there and offering people breakfast,” said Matafin.

“I watched her, the way she interacted with the community living in and around the Company’s Garden.

"I said to myself, ‘Who is this lady? What is she doing here so early on a Saturday morning? What does she want?’ After a while, I decided to go up to her - I was mos hungry.”

And so began a friendship that has endured through the years and supported Hoffman and Matafin in difficult times.

“It was the most natural, instinctive connection,” said Hoffman.

“She grabbed immediately the unspoken opportunity to help me provide hope for other Troopers as well, bringing what she had to give.

“She understood a language of going the extra mile without explanation. It was a case of ‘Here I am, this is what I have got to bring. What can you bring? Let’s see what we can do together and how far we can get.’”

Last month, I discussed Maslow’s first level of human needs, basic physical needs, like food, clothing, ablutions and shelter.

“When you’re homeless, you don’t have access to a bathroom every day,” said Matafin.

“Sometimes you are dirty. Sometimes you don’t have shoes. People look at you and judge you. If only they could say hello, take an old pair of shoes and give them to someone on the streets.

“The longest I went without food was three days when I was sick. I was sleeping in De Waal Park and had no energy to look for food. There’s no one to look after you. That is why you so appreciate it when somebody is kind to you Kindness has no judgement.”

Maslow’s second level of needs is our need for safety and security. Once our basic physiological needs are met, we focus on feeling comfortable in our space.

“To live on the streets you have to find a space that’s safe and you don’t get a space that is safe - it’s all unsafe,” said Matafin.

“You sleep with one eye open and one closed.”

"And law enforcement officers, the people who are supposed to help us all feel safe and secure, are often very cruel to the homeless.

“If they catch you sleeping in the corner, they will kick you and hit you and arrest you for nothing.

“The police took my stuff. I have a scar on my lip from a policeman who hit me with his gun ‘cos I was too clever for him. I spoke back to him. They would take my food and throw it away - they couldn’t care.

“There were times I was too scared to sleep. They called us bergies. They would knock down our hokkie, again and again.”

I’m astonished at the tenacity it takes to carry on in these circumstances, and sit in awe across the table from this formidable woman I’m proud to call my friend.

I ask her how she came to call the streets home and she tells me that her mother died when she was just eight years old, leaving her alone with no family support.

“I didn’t want to grow up on the streets so I took myself to Ons Plek (a residential shelter for girls, then in Albertus Street). I lived there until I had finished school. I was just 17 when I had to leave the home with nowhere to go, no work and no money - my only option was to sleep on the streets.”

And so began Matafin’s life on the streets, where she lived on and off for the next 40 years.

Her story, which I’ll tell you in more detail over the coming months to shed light on different aspects of living on the streets, while harrowing and heartbreaking, has a more-happy-than-most ending.

She currently has contract work at TB/HIV Care, a non-profit organisation helping those with TB, HIV and serious addictions, where she works closely with people living on the streets. (Our heroine managed to complete a college certificate in skills training - more next month.)

She has been a paying resident in a shelter for over three years, but longs for a bed of her own. And maybe, through this column, we’ll be able to help her realise her dream as it is her time to shine.

* Armed with degrees from UCT, Unisa and Cambridge University, Caryn Gootkin began practising law but soon realised the cut-throat corporate world was not for her. She began retraining and working as a writer, sub-editor and proofreader, and discovered her voice and a passion for speaking up for the voiceless. In early 2017 she joined Kerry Hoffman and together they run Souper Troopers, an NPO working to eradicate homelessness.

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

Cape Argus