David Gemmell. Picture supplied
David Gemmell. Picture supplied

This is the last article in this series. For the past six months I have tried to cover as many aspects as I could of the street people who infest our city. I met a variety of beggars, salesmen, entertainers, recyclers, displaced and lost people, aspiring Shakespearean actors, philanthropists, a strip-club owner and several guardian angels.
In almost every instance, I discovered my preconceptions were wrong and I was surprised at how eloquent, polite and courteous street people often are.

The more interviews I did, the more I became pre-occupied with seeing if a viable solution can be found to what is a social tragedy.

Theories abound as to how the problem of the street people should be addressed; from banning them, to adopting (metaphorically speaking) them or something in-between. One theory there seems to be a lot of support for is: giving money to beggars prolongs and encourages the problem.

Looking at that “solution”, I find myself wondering, what would happen to the ubiquitous scroungers - not the salesmen or entertainers - if everyone decided to stop handing over, “free money”.

Would they all die? Or would they be steered into a life of crime? Or would they try harder at finding jobs; creating ways of making money; or finding something to sell?

I doubt they would just give up and starve.There is a story that goes something like this. A group of explorers in the Antarctic decided one of them would go and shoot a reindeer to stock up their meat supply. Off he went searching until, when quite a long way from camp, he managed to pot one. He tied it onto his sledge and turned and made for home.

He hadn’t gone far when he noticed a couple of wolves following him. Trying to stall and distract them, the hunter cut off one of the reindeer’s legs and left it for them in the snow. His plan worked for a while and he was just congratulating himself, when suddenly a larger bunch of wolves started following him. He quickly chopped off another piece of reindeer, threw it to the wolves and hurried on.

But the situation got worse. He hadn’t crested the next hill when he turned and saw there were now double the number of wolves following him. And so it went. By the time he got back to camp there was virtually none of the reindeer left, so often had he left pieces for the ever-increasing pack of wolves following him.

When he told his companions what had happened one of them said to him. “All you’ve done is teach wolves to follow sledges”

Is that what we are doing when we hand out “free money”? Teaching people to beg? If no one gave a beggar money, there would be no point in him begging.

Or should we criminalise begging? But if we do, aren’t we then attacking the problem from the wrong angle? Banning begging treats it as a lifestyle choice. However, many street people didn’t choose to be where they are.

So is it a problem that can be discouraged through threats of legal action and heavy-handed policing? I think not.

Then there is homelessness or sleeping rough, (homelessness isn’t necessarily synonymous with begging). On Mandela Day when Firstgroup handed out 3000 blankets, I saw up close how dire the situation is. The solution to what is a global problem is going to be a lot more complex.

However, in Cape Town there is an organisation called the Haven Night Shelter which has 14 different shelters in the Western Cape. Most of these are in greater Cape Town. To stay there for a night, requires a pass that costs R10.

So instead of handing out money, people can give the homeless such a pass. I’m not sure if there is something similar in Joburg, but it sounds like a good start to chip away at the problem.

However, let me now briefly reflect on this series, how it began and some of the impressions it made on me. For those rare souls who might have read the first instalment, you will recall it all started when I tried to run over a juggler.

Once I got over the irritation of him standing in my way and glaring at me, and missing him as I sped off, I decided a better way was to find out why he behaved like that. And in doing so maybe investigate some of the other street people’s stories.

So I ventured forth and discovered a motley crew, with the occasional rough diamond. On a personal level the three things that stand out for me are:

* The street people I interviewed were mostly more articulate and interesting than I expected and like me in many respects.

* Almost without exception, they were responsive. Sometimes they were apprehensively curious, initially, but once they understood (mostly) what I was doing they were friendly.

* The aspect I found the most interesting, was in many instances, they wanted to tell their story more than they wanted something from me.

On that last point, I remember giving the chap, John Walker Master Blaster as I nicknamed him, a copy of his interview. He read it and then looked up and said: “The thing I like most about it,” and of course I awaited the inevitable compliment about how well-written and constructed it was, “was talking to you.

“Just having someone listen to my story was fantastic. I didn’t realise how badly I wanted to talk about my life.”

Once he pointed this out, I noticed it in other interviewees. They were far less concerned about where and when the article would be published - simply telling their story became an end in itself.

I also learnt about other people. First, I was astonished at the number of unsung heroes - guardian angels - there are helping street people.

And I learnt the most unexpected people are so generous. Like my mate who likes to remain anonymous (Willie Wales). When looking for philanthropic tendencies in my friends and acquaintances, he would probably not have been in the top 10; but he turned out to be the most generous.

I also find despite the irritation and anger street people generate; people who are better off, are still sympathetic to their plight. It just seems, even though many of them would like to help, apart from handing out loose change at intervals throughout the day, they don’t really know what they can do that will make a difference.

Something I noticed, was street people possess a number of similarities to each other. They are unfailingly religious. They are generally not bitter at their lot - often preferring to be grateful for the little they have, than railing against the universe for all the things they don’t.

Surprisingly, a lot of them firmly believe despite their circumstances, things will get better; they are mostly optimistic.

Last, they all seem to have a purpose - a dream they hope to fulfil one day. The Knitter wants to start a knitting school, the Funky Crutchman wants to be a gospel singer; the Shakespearean thespians want a chance to perform in the real world and so it goes.

So that’s it for now. It has been a fascinating exercise and curiously enjoyable, although in many instances, heart-rending.

I’m still looking at the possibility of doing a coffee table book. I have some stunning portraits of many of the subjects taken by arguably the best photographer in the country, Charles Johnstone, and enough interviews to keep a reader busy.

The idea being that a proportion of the proceeds will go to the people who appear in the book, which might be a pleasant end to a project that started for all the wrong reasons.

The Saturday Star