Sello Mabaane at St Wilfrid’s church, now a shelter for homeless people. Picture: Claudi Mailovich
Sello Mabaane at St Wilfrid’s church, now a shelter for homeless people. Picture: Claudi Mailovich

The serene gardens of St Wilfrid’s Anglican Church in Hatfield, Tshwane, stand in stark contrast to the streets that have been home to Sello Mabaane, 35, for the past 21 years.

Here at St Wilfrid’s, Mabaane — one among thousands of homeless people in SA — has been given refuge for the duration of the coronavirus-induced national lockdown. The church is one of 12 small temporary shelters set up in the capital to accommodate homeless people — a welcome addition to the larger shelters set up by local authorities in Tshwane.

The Covid-19 crisis has magnified the inequalities that exist in SA, says Amnesty International SA executive director Shenilla Mohamed, bringing differential access to housing, sanitation, water and health care, as well as service delivery, "into even starker light than before".

Nowhere is this more evident than in housing, given the requirement that South Africans stay home and self-isolate during the lockdown. Quoting the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Mohamed says: "Housing has become the frontline of defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life-and-death situation."

The government-mandated lockdown left major cities in SA scrambling to set up temporary shelters. Some cities, such as Tshwane and Durban, have garnered praise for the collaborative efforts between NGOs and local authorities.

Others have been less successful. Cape Town, for example, has been mired in controversy over a mass shelter in Strandfontein, where fears of overcrowding — which could undermine attempts to curb the spread of the virus — have been raised by, among others, medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières.

Wayne Renkin of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation at a temporary shelter in the capital. Picture: Claudi Mailovich
Wayne Renkin of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation at a temporary shelter in the capital. Picture: Claudi Mailovich

A complex problem

Ensuring that SA’s most vulnerable are cared for is more complex than simply providing food and shelter. The country’s homeless population faces numerous challenges, including tuberculosis and HIV infection, a lack of social support and high levels of substance abuse.

Raymond Perrier, director of the Denis Hurley Centre which offers support to the homeless and poor in Durban, also chairs the city’s task team on homelessness. He says one of the positives of the lockdown is that it has presented some with the opportunity to go off drugs, in an environment in which they are offered both medical and psychosocial support.

Mabaane sees the lockdown as a godsend for exactly that reason. For the first time in 15 years, he’s been able to steer clear of the street drug nyaope. And he’s not alone: even in a shelter this small, he’s one of 14 men who have effectively been forced to go clean as a result of the lockdown.

Not that everyone is as open to this as Mabaane. This is a community that has little but its own freedom, and some have rebelled against being forced to isolate and quit the substances that have for so long offered relief from the harshness of the street.

And, while Mabaane believes he’ll be able to stay off the drug with the help of volunteers while he’s at the shelter, he’s concerned about what happens after the lockdown.

"Our main problem we are asking ourselves is: when this Covid-19 ends, are we still going back to the streets, or will they find us shelters?" he says.

Wayne Renkin, of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation, is among the people Mabaane calls his "angels". He plays a critical role in ensuring that homeless people are cared for in Tshwane — but he points out there is no national policy on homelessness, and no national budget for it either.

While some provinces, such as the Western Cape, provide funding to shelters, the responsibility generally falls to municipalities. Some, like Tshwane, have the necessary policies in place but no money to fund them.

It’s no small issue. Renkin says popular estimates put the number of homeless people in SA at 200,000. Here, he uses a narrow definition, equating homelessness with living on the streets. In the global north, the term is used more broadly to include other forms of precarious housing, such as shacks in informal settlements. By this definition, Renkin says more than half of SA’s population would be seen as homeless.

Renkin, a theologian who has worked with homeless people for the past 11 years, hopes that by thrusting the issue of homelessness into the national spotlight, the pandemic will contribute to its eradication. "I’ve been arguing for as long as I can remember that if we can solve homelessness in all its forms, nothing is impossible for us," he says.

It is, however, "complex and it needs a complex answer" which includes diverse housing options, diverse health-care alternatives, psychosocial support and economic development. And "you need all of that at the same time", Renkin says.

To work, a solution to homelessness requires action from stakeholders across the spectrum, including business, the government departments and a variety of disciplines.

While Renkin says business has not yet come to the party in Tshwane, the opposite is true in Durban. There, the private sector works closely with the Denis Hurley Centre and the local government — particularly eThekwini deputy mayor Belinda Scott.

A shining example of the success of this collaboration is a Durban building that’s been redeveloped to shelter up to 240 women and children in private rooms.

Jonny Friedman, CEO and founder of property development company Urban Lime Properties, explains that the municipality provided an empty building for the project, while FNB and Urban Lime helped finance the development. Drawing on its expertise in property development in Durban, Cape Town and London, Urban Lime developed the building by, among other things, calling in favours from its regular subcontractors, who provided their services at cost.

The first phase of the building was ready within three weeks. Then, when Covid-19 hit, Scott sliced through red tape, allowing the women and children to move into the building as the lockdown took effect — six months early, says Friedman.

The women who are now housed in the building have been tasked with managing it in the longer term. It is, says Perrier, a challenge they have welcomed.

Collaboration is crucial

Friedman hopes the crisis will encourage businesses to think more broadly about social responsibility in the areas in which they work. He also believes that the alliances made during times like these are important, adding to the business case for stepping up to help.

The collaborative nature of the process is important too. The work done in Durban for homeless people — before and during the crisis — does, after all, require different strengths: the knowledge of the NGO sector, the speed at which the private sector can act, and a government to do its job and cut through the bureaucracy.

While Amnesty International’s Mohamed recognises the challenges facing the authorities during the pandemic, she urges the government to exploit its available resources, including collaboration with the private sector, to ensure sufficient emergency accommodation is provided for homeless people to effectively protect and isolate themselves. She also says the government needs to develop a long-term, human rights-compliant strategy to end homelessness.

What it means:

The lockdown has highlighted the complexity of resolving the plight of those who live on the streets

This is necessarily economic. As Perrier explains, homelessness in SA is first an economic issue that then becomes a social one. In Durban, for instance, most of the homeless are young men who come to the metro looking for jobs, he says.

It means SA’s response to homelessness is not only critical for those currently without homes. As the economic effect of the lockdown bites, the unemployment rate is set to soar and hunger to engulf those who already live from hand to mouth.

Asked whether they are concerned about rising homelessness in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, both Renkin and Mandla Nkosi, a site manager at St Wilfrid’s, immediately refer to a projected loss of 1-million jobs as a result of the lockdown.

"I think our work is just going to increase after this," Renkin says.

Seized with similar concerns — and in the seeming absence of a clear plan from the government — Jon Hopkins, COO of Cape Town-based NGO U-turn Homeless Ministries and Cape Town representative of the SA National Network on Street Homelessness, raises a central, and pressing, concern: "What is our response going to be if the number of homeless people doubles?"

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