City's heart is hardening, say homeless

Published Jul 15, 2007


By Rafaella Delle Donne

In the same week that thousands of blankets were distributed to shelters and charity organisations as part of GoodHopeFM's blanket drive, a homeless man claims his wife died of exposure after police took her blanket.

That's the third homeless person to die in and around the city in July.

Despite opposition from a number of non-government organisations including the Homestead, Sweat and The Big Issue, the new by-law on streets, public places and prevention of nuisances has begun to have a negative impact on destitute people living on Cape Town streets.

"The police just come here and take our blankets and tell us we must go," said a man who gave his name only as Rasta, who lived with the recently deceased Anna and her husband Elvison on Fort Wynyard Road behind the V&A Waterfront for 10 years.

Pam Jackson, director of Ons Plek, a home for street children, says there is a long history of police harassment of homeless people.

"Harassment dates back to the apartheid era, but I fear the by-law has ushered in a new era of harassment."

Her sentiments were echoed by Sandra Morreira, director of the Homestead and chairperson of the Western Cape Street Children's Forum, which was part of the NGO task team that opposed the new by-law.

"Harassment is happening anyway. Our concern has always been that the intention of the by-law may be good but the problem comes when it is implemented," she said.

Although police spokesperson Inspector Bernadine Steyn confirmed that Sea Point Police conducted regular operations with other law enforcement agencies, she denied that blankets had been confiscated.

"During the past three weeks several integrated operations have been conducted and several people have been arrested for specific crimes, for example, trespassing. We want to state clearly that no police member confiscated any blankets during the operations."

Heather Tager, who is on the board of directors of the Sea Point City Improvement District, also denies the Sea Point CID is involved with metro police and police in arresting street people and confiscating blankets.

"We have never confiscated blankets," she said firmly, adding: "We are very humane in our approach, but we are not there to protect people who commit crimes."

Nowellen Petersen, spokesperson for the metro police, said: "We have regular joint interventions with the South African Police Services and CIDs. We engage with the local community police forum before implementing an operation and they are well informed about the operations."

On allegations that police had been confiscating blankets he said: "No, there is absolutely no truth in these allegations."

However Jackson of Ons Plek said blankets definitely had been confiscated: "I know from a reputable source that this is happening and that two people have died as a result."

Under the new by-law, begging and sleeping on the streets is illegal. Essentially, it criminalises poverty, which means homeless people are resorting to hiding from police and organisations such as the Sea Point Community Police Forum to avoid arrest.

Rasta pointed to a derelict building next to Somerset Hospital and said: "People don't want to come out of the building because they are scared of the police. That's why people get sick in there."

Inside the building the rooms are strewn with rubbish and the stench of human faeces is unbearable. It is clear why some people prefer to brave the wet, cold nights and sleep on the roof.

The NGO task team that has made representations to Mayor Helen Zille and JP Smith, chairperson of the City of Cape Town's safety and security portfolio committee, is concerned that the by-law targets the poor.

"It does not make sense to arrest and fine people for trying to keep warm, cook food and create a shelter when there is a huge housing backlog and people are homeless and forced to squat," it said.

Smith, who is getting married in Zanzibar, was not available to comment. But in a letter to the NGO task team, he defended the by-law, claiming it was "one of the most progressive pieces of local government legislation in South Africa".

He said Cape Town, unlike Johannesburg and Durban, had not outlawed begging altogether. Smith has said the by-law only prohibited "aggressive" begging and stated that "no person shall continue to beg or closely follow a person after the person has given a negative response to such begging".

The NGO task team has argued that the by-law allows for individual discretion to decide what constitutes "aggressive" begging.

Jackson of Ons Plek said although street people do their share of annoying people, "the by-law reflects a hardening of hearts towards street people".

For the homeless on Fort Wynyard Road, the by-law is a puzzle: "I want to ask them why they don't take the rubbish away but they take us away," says Rasta.

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