Opinions

People in the city

  • Posted on September 8, 2014

Few people are aware of the daring lives and struggles of the homeless on the streets of the City of Cape Town and its surrounding areas. In 2011, 7.000 mostly men, women and children of colour were recorded as homeless, three years later this figures escalated to 13.000 including 9.000 destitute living on doorsteps and under bridges within the metropolitan area. 

According to Shelters for the Homeless Western Cape Directory, 20 shelters are listed, including those nearest to the City, the Haven Night Shelter Moira Henderson, Woodstock; the Haven Night Shelter, Napier Street, Green Point; and the Haven Shelter Shelkirk Street, District Six. While some find shelter in these many cannot afford the few rand admission fee for the night and are forced to stay on the streets. The Havens manage nine more homeless shelters in Cape Town and six more in other Western Cape towns. 

A social worker at the Carpenter’s Shop, an NGO providing rehabilitation, training and accommodation for homeless people on Roeland Street, is of the opinion that there has been an increase of migration from the Cape Flats, townships and other areas to the Mother City saying that, ‘Many homeless people want to remain close to town’ but she adds, ‘some people are afraid of using shelters because they fear that they might be relocated to outlying areas’. She, like many others, feel that the City would prefer to remove homless people to places where they will be out of sight of visitors. This doesn’t only happen in Cape Town. It happens in other other big cities too, especially when they host popular international events. For those who have been marginalised, it feels as if the city has become a playground of the rich while the poor struggle to eek out a living, in the shadow of Table Mountain, the City’s most famous landmark.

Yet against all odds and constant threats of abuse from Cape Town’s police, the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID) and passers-by many overcome the grim circumstances of their existence on the streets, if only for a while, or until they are appropriately settled. One such person is a man I will call Mark Philander. He is a homeless entrepreneur who produces and sells unique handmade woodwork and furniture from his home on an island in Hope Street, Cape Town. His tools are a hammer, hand-saw, nails and sand paper. Mark refuses to be just another statistic though just like all the other thousands of homeless people he also has to brave the wintry Cape, year in and year out. He makes a living selling his woodwork to visitors and working people in and around the area where he works and sleeps. Sadly he has vanished. He was removed by the City police and no-one knows where he is now.

The tendancy to move marginalised people from the city centre to the periphery has a long history, dating back to the time when the first colonial settlers made their home at the foot of Table Mountain. As the settlement grew and expanded, richer people made their homes in the centre, while poorer people were pushed to the margins. This practice continued under colonial and aparheid rule resulting in a city that was sharply divided by race and class together. Even-though a slave or Khoin woman might be married to a European she was often not accepted.

Although the legislation that enforced divisions has been struck off the statute books the divides remain and new forms of inequality and social tensions are emerging triggering further insecurities and fears are growing as people scramble for scarce resources such as jobs and housing. The challenge to the City is to find ways to facilitate social development in a way that acknowledges the presence of marginalised communities, including holeless people and respects their rights to an acceptable quality of life, equal access to opportunities and dignity. Only then will we be proud of the City, not just for its world-famous land-marks, but as a place where all its residents, including the most vulnerable, feel ‘at home’.

Lucelle Campbell is an energetic cultural activist with a special interest in the history of slavery at the Cape, and an Archival Platform Correspondent.

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