Being homeless is not enough reason to abandon hope
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There is hope in the unlikeliest of places. One is the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court, though it’s hard to find on a Monday morning when a friend and colleague is in the dock after a brush with the law.
Our courts are great levellers. Social status and the size of your bank balance mean nothing. Here you will wait your turn to face the music with everyone else.
It may feel unforgiving, but in the eyes of the law - most of the time anyway - we’re all equal. And so it should be.
The prosecutor tells the court during argument for a postponement that the average turnaround time for a case is about six months.
That is if you’re lucky.
So, it was in the corridors of this functional government building that I found a glimmer of hope in the midst of immense gloom.
The colleague and friend is Danny Oosthuizen - a homeless man well-known to readers for his Cape Argus column The Dignity Project. He is the eyes and ears of Cape Town’s homeless.
Danny had been arrested and found himself in Pollsmoor for a few days. There was a chance for him to get bail. But there was a big problem - Danny is homeless and a requirement for bail is a fixed address while awaiting trial.
Were it not for the efforts of a small but extraordinary group of people, Danny might have found himself at Pollsmoor for six months.
They weren’t going to judge Danny or condone what he allegedly did. I’ll leave the details for Danny to share in his own column.
What we couldn’t allow, if we could help it, was for him to spend six months in Pollsmoor.
Danny is homeless and is further vulnerable because he is gay and HIV positive.
Cape Argus live editor Lance Witten and I arrived at court feeling defeated. How was our letter from Cape Argus editor Aziz Hartley, confirming Danny’s gig as a columnist, going to make a difference if it didn’t say anything about a fixed address?
But our mood lifted when we saw Pat Eddy and Mark Williams of the Central City Improvement District (CCID) outside court waiting for Danny to appear.
Pat and Mark walk a fine line as part of the social development side of the CCID, an organisation that also has an obligation to businesses. It is complicated. It has to balance heart and mind by looking after the welfare of our city centre’s most vulnerable, while at the same time shielding businesses against the inevitable misdemeanours homelessness creates. The two worlds collide often.
Pat and Mark were already in action. Pat had secured a shelter for Danny. Mark had resigned himself to staying at the court for as long as it took so he could take Danny to the shelter in the event he was released on bail. They weren’t really there as representatives of CCID. If Danny wanted proof he had friends, he had to look no further than Pat and Mark.
Lance and I were also armed with a letter from Project Khulisa’s Jesse Laitinen, confirming a programme for Danny’s rehabilitation. Madhni Arnold, a lawyer friend with a heart of gold, provided informal pro bono legal advice.
Back at the office, Aziz was ready to run down to the court to pay Danny’s bail.
Danny was released on a warning. It was due largely to the efforts of these selfless individuals.
But Danny also put in the hard yards. He fostered a working relationship with the CCID where there was once deep suspicion and animosity. He helped soften attitudes between the CCID and the homeless and between the homeless and the homed.
Lessons have been learnt and I believe Danny is remorseful. But Danny is worth the effort. We owe him. He has taught us much.
Lance and I have since encouraged Danny to start writing his memoirs and he has suggested a title - Memoirs of a Life Almost Wasted. In the meantime, we’ve given Danny the nickname “Shawshank”.
There is hope in the most unlikely of places - even the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court.
* Follow Abarder’s musings on Twitter - @GasantAbarder