File picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA)

Pretoria - In a huge victory for homeless people and which serves as a warning to municipalities, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) has found that the City of Johannesburg Metro Police acted disrespectfully and in a demeaning manner towards a group of homeless people when they simply destroyed their belongings.

The SCA recognised the dignity of the poor and said they also had the right to be treated with respect and to be protected.

In a landmark judgment, five justices of that court ordered that the City of Johannesburg pay each of the homeless people whose possessions were destroyed R1 500 in compensation. This was after the court declared the destruction of their possessions as unlawful.

Justice Mandisa Maya said the R1 500 is to effectively place them in the same position than they would have been if their belongings were not destroyed.

The 27 applicants, who turned to the SCA with the help of Lawyers for Human Rights, are homeless people who made a home for themselves on a traffic island under the R31 highway bridge on End Street in the Johannesburg CBD.

They earned a pittance from collecting recyclable items and they could not afford to pay rent. They thus regarded the traffic island as their home, where they also stored their belongings. This comprised food, blankets, documents and various materials such as boxes and wooden pallets, which they used to build shelters at night.

Each morning they dismantle their structures, pack the material and leave it there while they go out searching for food and work.

The JMPD officials, however, in 2017 descended upon the traffic island in a convoy of vehicles and hurled insults at the homeless. They kicked and sprayed them with pepper spray and loaded all their belongings in a waste removal truck and destroyed it.

The JMPD defended this and said the homeless were an ongoing challenge for them, as they lived on the streets and caused a mess. It said it had programmes in place to try and assist these people, but they did not want help.

The cleaning-up operation was prompted by complaints lodged by businesses in the area and the public. The complaints included that the sidewalks were taken up by the group, who left rubbish there, urinated and defecated and robbed people.

The City denied that any valuables were taken and they explained that during clean-ups, they took care to preserve people’s belongings.

But a good Samaritan, Nigel Branken, took a video of the entire episode, which was handed to court. The video showed belongings simply being thrown into the truck.

The Johannesburg High Court initially turned down the application by the homeless to get their belongings back and to be paid compensation. That court found that the group of homeless people inadequately described their items which in any event had been destroyed and therefore could not be returned.

The high court also concluded that the traffic island was a public thoroughfare and could not be equated with a home. It, however, did frown upon the brutal manner in which they were treated and it called on the City to stop with this policy.

But as that order had no impact on the homeless in this case, the group took their plight up with the SCA.

Justice Maya said the constitutional rights of the homeless was breached when the JMPD took their belongings. "All these people wanted was for the court to order the return of their goods." But, the justice said, this proved to be difficult, as the list of goods only broadly stated things such as blankets, baby clothes or “tools to fix trolley".

The only practical solution, she said, was to give each person R1 500 to replace these items. The total sum the JMPD will have to pay is R40 500, which is not a large amount, she said.

LHR lawyer Louise du Plessis, who assisted the homeless, said: “If you care about our country and humanity, you will celebrate this judgment.”

She said her client’s belongings may not be worth much, but to them it was all they had in life. “This judgment is a victory for the dignity of the poor.”

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