How to deal with the homeless in mutually beneficial ways

The response to the column I wrote on Friday 18th October (Do we want to make life less comfortable for people who sleep on the street?) has encouraged and motivated me. But, at the same time, it’s left me feeling a tad uneasy.

Apart from the three letters that appeared in this paper on 21 October, I have received numerous other messages of support. Many people have thanked me for suggesting there must be a kinder way of approaching the problem of people sleeping on the streets. People in general seem to agree that we need to do more than simply remove these people from our areas and carry on with our lives. Nobody has echoed the American’s sentiments. Well, not to my face anyway.

Several readers thanked me for ‘speaking out’, which really got me thinking. Clearly, this is an issue many people feel strongly about. And it’s one that affects all of us, no matter which neighbourhood watch we belong to.

Where then were these people that night when the tall American asked us to be less tolerant of the homeless? Why were his words treated to a round of loud applause while mine fell on seemingly deaf ears?

To answer these questions I thought back to how I felt the last time I drove past a group sleeping in the entrance to a shop. Before the tall American catapulted the plight of those sleeping rough into my radar, I, too, preferred not to think about it. I would glance sadly at their sleeping bodies, unable to comprehend how horrible it must be, incapable of reconciling it with the warm bed that waited for me. And then I’d move on to the next thought.

I salute those who venture beyond the comforts of their own life to engage with those who sleep rough in their neighbourhood. I’m sharing two stories with you because they opened my eyes to creative ways we can look this issue directly in the face.

Cheryl (not her real name) from Gauteng lives in a complex whose body corporate wanted to remove a woman who slept on municipal land outside the complex during the day. They assumed she “must be a drunk” and considered her “an eyesore”. Cheryl voiced her objections but realised she was alone in wanting to deal with this woman as a person rather than a problem.

She introduced herself to Lindy (not her real name), who was surprised Cheryl had come to talk to her rather than ask her to leave. Lindy worked nights as a cleaner to care for her orphaned grandchildren. The only job she could find was on the opposite end of Joburg from her township home. As she couldn’t afford the daily taxi fare, she would travel into Cheryl’s suburb on Monday afternoons, work nights and sleep on the grass near Cheryl’s complex during the days. On Saturday mornings she returned to the township.

Cheryl offered her the use of her spare room when her domestic worker was there. Lindy offered to pay Cheryl back by cleaning for her but Cheryl declined. Lindy became a regular visitor to Cheryl’s home, refusing offers of food and insisting on washing up after her tea. Even when Lindy’s personal circumstances got harder, she never asked Cheryl for anything material. Both their lives are richer for having met.
Lisa, a member of the Friends of De Waal Park, spends most evenings in the park with her dogs. Users of the park used to be too scared to go to the toilet block out because of a group of what they call ‘park residents’. Rather than deal with the problem in the conventional way suggested by my American neighbour and Cheryl’s body corporate, the Friends employed these park dwellers in the park. One is in charge of the flowers and another keeps the toilets (which are now spotless) open after hours for all the dog walkers. Vuyo is great at his new job: taking care of the baby owls in the park day and night. Lisa describes how the respect they’ve shown him has helped Vuyo gain confidence and he is now comfortable with the publicity and interest around the owls.

Proud of the park, the park residents keep it cleaner and safer than it’s ever been. And they are excellent guards, handing in bags, keys and cell phones left in the park and informing the Friends when criminal elements enter the park. Another mutually beneficial relationship.
Seeing, thinking and talking about our fellow Capetonians sleeping rough makes us feel uncomfortable. Most of us, assuming we don’t share the American’s views like Cheryl’s body corporate, turn a blind eye because it’s easier to do so than to confront the unease we feel when faced with it.

But it’s simply not good enough. We can’t ignore it by hiding behind rants about how ‘the government does nothing to help its own people’. They are our people, too; they live in our neighbourhoods in our city, a mother who treats some of her children more equally than others.


This article first appeared in the Cape Times on 19 November 2013.