Homeless in the ‘Mother City’

At the start of lockdown in March 2020, the City of Cape Town housed homeless people in a giant tent in Strandfontein. Photo by Sharon McKinnon

As World Homeless Day was marked, the City of Cape Town declared it intends appealing a court ruling that it pay compensation to homeless people it removed from District 6.

It is affectionately known as the ‘Mother City’, but protests in recent years have amplified the criticism that Cape Town does not embrace all its citizens, particularly those who are homeless. Stories of homeless Capetonians being harassed by officers enforcing some harsh by-laws have been well-documented in the media.

Last month the City of Cape Town embarked on a massive law enforcement drive that saw the eviction of 46 homeless people. The High Court, however, ruled against the City for evicting homeless people from a District 6 parking lot, ordering the City to return all of the occupiers’ tents, material and property or pay damages of R1,700 as compensation. The court also interdicted the City of Cape Town from evicting the occupiers without a court order. The City of Cape Town has said that it will appeal the judgement.

The by-laws relate to streets, public places and the prevention of noise nuisances (2007) and waste management (2009). These have been met with resistance. According to Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), which represents homeless people, the by-laws criminalise homelessness by making it a crime to conduct ordinary life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, camping, resting, bathing, begging, lie down, erecting a shelter or keeping personal belongings in public.

NU says it has already taken the City to the High Court and the Equality Court for discriminating against homeless people and violating their constitutional rights. “Being homeless is not a crime. Making it a crime for homeless people to perform ordinary life-sustaining activities is a cruel, inhumane and punitive response to a chronic socio-economic phenomenon. It is ridiculous that the City goes as far as fining the homeless R2,000.”

NU is not alone in their quest to find justice for the homeless in Cape Town. Strandfontein Homeless Action Committee (SHAC) is also campaigning to decriminalise the Cape Town homeless community.

Life on the streets

Being a homeless person living on the streets of Cape Town is like a sin, so says 31-year-old Shulfia Mohammed as she sits on top of her bags which are scattered around under a tree in a street in the Cape Town CBD. It’s around lunch-time on a scorching Cape Town summer day and Mohammed says she hasn’t eaten since the day before. She is unable to freely move around the city and beg for food as her movements and that of her peers around the city are constantly monitored by the city’s law enforcement officers.

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Mohamed forms part of around 14,000 homeless people on the streets of Cape Town who have been badly affected by the city’s by-laws. Speaking with a hoarse voice, she tells Elitsha that she has lost count of the number of times law enforcement officers assaulted her, for “petty stuff.” “The one time it was pouring hard during winter and I was walking to my space in the upper deck. Without uttering a word the officers unleashing some klaps and grabbed my belongings and threw them on the street. When I protested they said I was causing trouble and that we as homeless people were no longer needed in the city centre because we made it dirty. I may still have been young during the apartheid years, but the sort of treatment we endure is the same that our parents used to experience during the apartheid years,” says Mohammed shaking her head.

Going back home she says, is not an option as she escaped a house full of “druggies” where there were always fights. “I come from Bontheheuwel but life back home is not normal. My siblings are fighting all the time over the house that our parents left us. That’s why I decided to leave home and come to live here. I survive by begging and also washing the taxis sometimes in order to buy bread,” she says.

Shulfiah Mohammed (31) says law enforcement officers have assaulted her more times than she can count. Photo by Siyabonga Kamnqa

Echoing Mohamed’s sentiments is another homeless person, Maahir De Jongh (35). Having lived on the streets for the past five years, De Jongh says he’s always had to deal with harassment by the police “They always beat us for nothing. It’s like they take their boredom out on us. Yes there are some among us who are being used by drug dealers to sell drugs. But that doesn’t mean all of us are into that stuff. So everytime cops are patrolling the streets they always come for us and when they don’t find drugs they beat us up. It’s not nice at all. Some of us didn’t come to live here out of choice. We were forced by terrible circumstances,” says De Jongh.

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He says the by-laws are designed to ensure that the homeless are removed from the streets of the city centre completely. “But why can’t they find us decent shelters? That’s the least they can do to alleviate our plight. Most of the time they lie and say there are enough shelters for all of us in Cape Town. But when you go to those places you get told that it’s full and there is no space for you.”

De Jongh says he survives by doing piece jobs which have been hard to come by since the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

De Jongh says that he has been struggling to get temporary jobs since the start of the lockdown. Photo by Siyabonga Kamnqa

Walking slowly and carrying his mattress around the city centre, Aubrey Wicad (32) tells Elitsha he is on the lookout for good samaritans who can offer him something to eat. “I normally get some left-overs at this other restaurant. But when I went there they told me to come back much later. And I’m starving bad right now. I just need someone to offer me some bread,” he says.

Like most homeless people, Wicad says he often gets chased away by law enforcement officers “as if I’m a criminal. I don’t do any drugs. I only smoke glue once in a while just to kill the misery and boredom.” Before the by-laws were introduced, Wicad says he used to “sleep lekker warm” in the upper deck but now has to endure cold nights under cardboard boxes and one tiny blanket. “It’s not nice what they are doing to us. We are also people and need to be treated with dignity,” he says.

Wicad says hunger is one of the challenges that he faces on a daily basis on the streets. Photo by Siyabonga Kamnqa

Walking around the streets of Cape Town, Elitsha saw solid dividers on the benches in the Company Gardens and boulder paving under the cut-off highway in the CBD. The anti-homeless architecture is meant to prevent people from sleeping on the benches or under the bridge.

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