Sleeping out with homeless

Chad Biegnaar, Zhaida Juries and Arlene Petersen slept on the streets to demonstrate their support for the homeless.

Over the past two weeks the City of Cape Town has been facing severe backlash over the implementation of its by-laws against the homeless living on the street.

A group of young people from Retreat, Steenberg and other areas literally took to the streets on Friday July 12 to voice their concerns about the enforcement of the by-laws.

The group, led by Hillview resident Arlene Petersen, made their way to the Cape Town central business district, Long and Leeuwen streets and the Cape Town police station and spent the night sleeping on the street with posters declaring it is unjust for street people to be fined and victimised.

Ms Petersen said the group of friends said they read about people living on the streets being fined and they wanted to raise awareness about the challenges they face. “The people of Cape Town are known to help out where they can through winter blanket drives and feeding schemes, so when we heard about what was happening, we decided to do something about it,” she said.

“We wanted to do a demonstration and also experience what it’s like to live like street people and what their struggles are. We were sleeping on the streets for one night and it was extremely difficult. They have to protect themselves and they have to protect their belongings and then law enforcement come and also take their possessions,” said Ms Petersen.

“We often do blanket drives and soup kitchens but we wanted to do more and bring awareness to the plight of street people and the fact that they won’t be able to pay the fines that they get from the City,” she added.

Cheryl de Villiers, 27, who has been living on the streets for the past five years, said life is tough. “It is very unsafe, especially for a woman to be out on the streets but I feel I have no choice. I don’t want to go home because my family disowned me because of my drug problem and there were some family issues. I was a very troubled young woman and my family had to endure a lot at my hands,” she said.

Asked if she would ever go back home she said: “No. The streets is my home now. I would rather face my demons out here than go to go home”.

Another man, only known as Kop, said it was unfair that the City would target them. “We cannot afford to pay fines, we have no jobs, how are we going to pay it? We are just trying to survive and don’t need this added burden. The City is saying that we must get off the streets and go home but many can’t go home for different reasons. We can’t go to shelters because we have to pay money that
we can use to put food in our mouths so we rather live on the streets. We
are being victimised and we need help, not this kind of treatment,” he said.

The fines vary in terms of the by-law relating to streets, public spaces and prevention of noise nuisance. The fine for starting or keeping a fire going in a public space is
R1 500, if you obstruct pedestrian traffic on a sidewalk by bringing, or allowing to be brought thereon any object or vehicle you can be fined R300. The Integrated Waste Management By-law states that littering or dumping under one square metre is liable to a fine of R500.

JP Smith, Mayco member for safety and security, said the City stepped up street people operations because there had been a spike in complaints. “It is in response to an avalanche of complaints from the general public about anti-social behaviour related to street people”.

He added that the operations were not new and neither were the fines. “Unfortunately, the issue has been hijacked for political gains, which has been driven by a campaign of misinformation, as highlighted in much of the reporting around the issue, citing a new by-law, when in fact it has been in existence for 12 years,” he said.

“The courts determine what the outcome of each case is. Each fine follows this process. A fine is issued to the alleged offender and an admission of guilt amount is attached to the fine as well as a court date to appear in court if they wish to challenge the fine.”

If the fine is not paid and the person doesn’t appear in court on the stipulated date, then a warrant is issued to secure their presence in court. The magistrate and prosecutor then process each case further.

Responding to the outcry from the public, Mr Smith said the City was duty-bound to enforce the law equally and without prejudice. “Any person who is unable to pay a fine has an opportunity to appear before a magistrate and cite their circumstances, as is the case with any fine issued by a City department.”

He said the fines were a last resort for dealing with repeat offenders who simply refused to accept any social intervention and who continued to transgress the by-laws.

“The City has the unenviable task of trying to balance the rights of street people with the rights of the general population. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to the near 16 000 complaints received in the past 12 months,”he said.

Dr Zahid Badroodien, Mayco member for community services and health, said the City’s street people unit conducted outreach for the destitute. They offer street people access to social services, temporary shelter, assistance to access social grants and identity documents, temporary work opportunities through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) as well as reintegration into their communities of origin, particularly people from other towns or cities in the country who have no way of getting back to their families. For locally based persons, the City facilitates a return to their family, if they so choose.

“Furthermore, the City also spends an estimated R700 000 on its winter readiness programme which runs from May to September annually, which sees the City supporting organisations that provide shelter for street people by supplementing their available resources to enable more indigent people to benefit from their services,” said Dr Badroodien.

The Haven Night Shelter in Retreat is one of the shelters that have qualified for assistance this year.

A year ago, the City also launched its first Safe Space pilot project, through which more than 600 people have been assisted.

“The City wants to expand the Safe Space concept to other parts of the city. We are looking into the feasibility thereof and no concrete plans are in place at this stage,” Dr Badroodien said.

Asked if there was anything else planned to assist the street people of Cape Town, Dr Badroodien said the City was constantly reviewing its existing programmes to see whether these were still fit for purpose.

“We are currently finalising the data from our latest street people enumeration process. Once that is done, we will use the trends/data to help inform our approach going forward,” he said.