Eight hundred kilometres from home, Jamie has been trying to find a way back for the past six years. Cape Argus deputy news editor Lance Witten spoke to her as part of #TheDignityProject.
Cape Town - Lured to Cape Town by the promise of a job at a modelling agency, Jamie caught a bus shortly after matriculating to seek her fortune in the city.
“It seemed like a good opportunity. They were looking for administration staff and I applied. When they asked for a picture, I assumed it was because you can’t be ugly to work for an agency. So it seemed normal.”
Having worked as a store clerk on weekends throughout her matric year, Jamie, originally from Upington, saved up enough money for a bus ticket to Cape Town.
“When I got here they asked me for my ID so they could make copies. They gave me a place to stay and I thought everything was okay.”
The next few years would be a blur. She never got her ID back. She was slowly introduced to drugs and alcohol. The job never materialised.
“It happened so fast. One minute you are having fun and the next, it is a whirlwind of parties and the high life and drugs to keep you going.”
Very soon, the drugs took hold of her and she spiralled into addiction.
Jamie’s lowest point came when the suggestion was made that she sell her body for money to buy drugs.
“I did not even think twice. By then, it was normal.”
Also read: What is #TheDignityProject?
She says she could “no longer tell the difference between right and wrong” and it became easier to offer herself up to strangers, provided it brought the promise of her next fix.
Jamie was given a place to stay, as long as she could contribute towards the rent in the communal flat she says she lived in with four girls. She would have to hand over half of her night’s takings to their handler and, in exchange, would receive enough of her drug of choice to keep her going until the next night.
“By then, you are hungry for it. But you want it so bad because you can’t go without it.”
She had had brushes with the law and some of these encounters she would be able to bribe her way out by offering all her earnings from the night.
At other times she would spend the night in a holding cell and be released the next morning.
“It depends on how high you are. You can’t be high on the street to the point you can’t talk your way out of trouble.”
Once she spent a weekend in a cell.
“I was scared to get out. Because what are they going to do to me if I come home without any money? Just now they kick me out, or they don’t give me a fix. That unga takes you and makes you think like this.”
However, by that Sunday, she began to think a little differently.
“Maybe I can do this without the drugs. Maybe I can get out.”
One Monday, upon her release, she decided not to go back to the flat.
She slept on the street and skarreled by day to get enough money to eat.
Read more: The skarrel to eke out a life
But the addiction was quick to catch up with her.
“You can go for a few days. But then…” she exhales a long, slow puff of cigarette smoke, making the shape of an explosion with her hands.
She began skarreling for money to buy drugs and soon was working the streets at night again. “It is all I knew. I was a slave.”
Her recent past soon caught up with her and she was severely beaten when her previous handler found her working one night.
She lifts up her shirt to show years-old scars across her ribs and back.
“He kicked and kicked me.”
He then took her back to the flat where he forced her to smoke tik and unga “for the pain”.
“There were different girls now. This was maybe four months later.”
Jamie wanted to change and ran away again one night. That was three years ago.
“I have tried rehab, and you know, you go away for three months, but you come out and then what?”
She was determined not to fall back into her old cycle, but it was hard.
“Every time you get back up… I slept on the street…” she pauses to wipe away tears.
“I slept on the street and worked where I could. I would clean toilets here and do some housework there.
“And all the time I was thinking ‘I am not going back to the drugs’, but it was like you could never escape.”
Along with it came increased absenteeism from her various odd-jobs and she soon found herself unemployed again.
Depression sunk in and it was not long before she was doing whatever she could to get enough money to buy drugs.
Jamie had to be careful not to use the same dealers she had, she says, in case her handler tracked her down again.
Living in fear, Jamie moved out of the City Bowl area into Woodstock.
Work was slow, but she found it easier to find a safe place to lay her head at night.
Jamie joined a church in Salt River and a support group in Observatory she says helped her turn her life around.
“I was doing this now for me. God had a higher purpose.
“All this time I had not once thought about home. I did not know if my mother was still alive. I started realising there was something to live for. Maybe I could get back home to her. Maybe I could make a change.”
Every day Jamie fears she will slide back into the cycle of abuse. It is a real fear and one shared by many other homeless people we had come across.
She views herself as a transient – for her, homelessness is just a phase, where others, she says, “choose not to be part of the system”.
Jamie views some homeless people who live in homemade tents on vacant lots for decades at a time as having made a choice to do so.
“But me, I just want to go back,” she says, brushing away more tears. “But it is like every time it is going lekker, something sucks you back. And knowing that will happen one day saks your pluck (drains your will).”
Jamie has been clean for nine months. She has found temporary work at a store in Observatory and still sleeps on the streets some nights, in between sharing the couches of friends. “A stoep will do,” she chuckles.
Before we part, Jamie says she is convinced that by June she would have scraped together enough money to get back to Upington. However, she is concerned about the welcome she will receive.
She says she had never asked anyone for anything “and I’m not going to start now”.
Jamie fears reaching home to find no opportunities for work and her mother gone. “I don’t want to fall back.”
She is clear she does not want hand-outs, and is convinced the support she receives from the group sessions she attends for recovering addicts will help her become a stronger person.
“I have not shared with them that I worked as a prostitute. That is the hardest part for me. It is a time in my life I want to lock away and forget about. But I talk about it to some people. I am talking to you. But it gives me a pain in my heart.
“Who is that person who lived in my body for that time?”
* Jamie’s true identity is being withheld for her own protection.