COVID-19: Staying safe on (and off) the streets

COVID-19: Staying safe on (and off) the streetsInside the Culemborg shelter in Cape Town. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
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For the past four years, Florentina Branot has been living under squalid conditions on the streets of Cape Town.

Branot tells Spotlight she ended up living on the streets after “mixing with the wrong crowd” and getting hooked on drugs in Retreat, a suburb in the southern areas of Cape Town, where she hails from.

Seated on a bed inside the Culemborg Site 2 shelter, Branot says life wasn’t always like this. She once had a wonderful life and was married with four children before things took a turn for the worse.

She is 33 but looks much older.

Before Florentina Branot ended up at the Culemborg shelter, she spent four winters on the streets of Cape Town – homeless. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Her husband, who she says was a gangster, was convicted and sentenced to two life terms for the murder of a traffic officer in 2016.

“That was when my life went on a downward spiral and I found myself being isolated by my family. They tried to talk me out of drugs, but I was hooked already. Then I decided to go and live on the streets where no one would judge or rebuke me,” she says.

To feed her drug habit, she says she often spent cold nights begging at traffic lights.

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“Life on the streets was very tough. But I’m glad that today I have found a home here (Culemborg). I am grateful for the roof over my head and the hot meals,” she says.

Branot is among a group of 96 homeless people living at the Culemborg Site 2 in the Cape Town inner city, many of  whom are finding it hard to come to terms with the COVID-19 regulations. Since March the regulations encouraged or compelled people to stay at home and avoid crowded places.

Food packs at the Culemborg shelter as part of the Ubuntu project for ‘Restoring Human Dignity’. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

The lockdown regulations for alert level 4 released in April also tasked government with providing “temporary shelters for homeless people that comply with the necessary health protocols and adequate spacing standards”. Four months down the line Spotlight visited some shelters in Cape Town to assess measures put in place to protect the health and safety of the homeless.

Health on the streets

Homeless people living on the street, is often framed as a social and a housing problem and less so as a health issue. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has, for the time being, shifted the focus to the health and safety of vulnerable populations – also the homeless.

One recent study quotes figures estimating that by 2008 there were between 100 000 and 200 000 homeless people in South Africa. Besides housing, various other social determinants of health such as nutrition, substance abuse and access to water and sanitation all impact the health of homeless people.

For homeless people like Branot, survival depends on being out on the streets, mostly begging and living from hand to mouth. While they are allowed out during the day, many of the homeless at the shelter say they miss their “normal” lives.

“It is not easy to stay here all day long because most of us are used to life on the streets. But we have to tolerate living here because on the streets the risks of contracting the virus are high,” says Meitjie Maans (42). “People still continue to share cigarettes or drugs and put themselves at risk. I [deal with] the boredom by watching TV and sleeping. The temptations to get out of here and return to the streets are sometimes there but I try to remain positive at all times.” Maans is originally from Ceres.

Meitjie Maans survived TB whilst living on the streets of Cape Town. She says she was a ‘heavy drinker’ but took a break from alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
At the Culemborg shelter the homeless seeking shelter has access to a television but what they really want is hot water. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Strangely enough, even for Maans, is that they have the luxury of watching TV but no hot water to bath.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis a few years ago, and having just recently fully recovered, Maans is grateful to be staying at the shelter and escape the winter chills on the streets. Before arriving at the shelter she was a heavy drinker but says after the COVID-19 outbreak she has decided to “take a break” from alcohol. Maans says due to withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and drugs, most of the homeless people are often “grumpy” and fights break out.

One study published in the journal Development Southern Africa investigated the health and well-being of homeless adults and children living on the streets in provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng. It showed sexually transmitted infections, tuberculosis, drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and malnutrition were prominent health issues in this group. It was also found that factors influencing health seeking behaviour among homeless people on the streets include an “inability to provide proof of residence and/or identification documentation, as well as discrimination by staff”.

In another study published in BMC Health Services Research, it was found homeless people living on the street are “more prone to communicable, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and are less likely to access healthcare services”. Despite this, the study states “there are no specific public healthcare services tailored to the needs of these communities, particularly if they are immigrants”.

Someone’s source for spiritual sustenance on a makeshift bedside table at the Culemborg shelter. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Health services for the homeless?

Spokesperson for the Western Cape Health Department, Mark van der Heever, says that working with the City [of Cape Town] the department provided a full clinic service at the Strandfontein Temporary Emergency Shelter and “continues to deliver health services to the homeless at primary healthcare facilities”.

The Strandfontein site has since been closed.

“We continue ensuring that temperatures are taken daily and if there is a need, the homeless people are transported to our nearest health facilities for services and collection of chronic medications,” van der Heever said.

Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Health in the City Of Cape Town, Zahid Badroodien, says they have daily screenings at the Culemborg shelter.

“Any person who screens positive for COVID-19 [symptoms] is referred to a public quarantine facility, or an isolation facility if they test positive,” says Badroodien.

Earlier, the City of Cape Town came under fire from opposition parties in the Western Cape for “dumping” homeless people under a bridge.

But Badroodien disputes this.

“We strongly object to all allegations that the City has dumped the homeless under a bridge in the CBD. This group of homeless individuals, who were part of the Strandfontein camp, steadfastly refused  accommodation at smaller shelters and opted to return to the CBD to be closer to the expanded Culemborg Safe Space,” says Badroodien.

Some among the homeless like Michael Fassie, complains about having no hot water to wash themselves at the Culemborg shelter. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Grateful, but give us hot water

Michael Fassie (52) says as much as he is grateful for the food and shelter at the Culemborg shelter, the living conditions are “terrible”.

Fassie complains about sleeping on the mattress on the floor and the lack of access to hot water for a bath during the cold and wet winter days.

“We take a bath in these buckets with cold water every day,” he says, pointing to a five-litre bucket.

“Yes someone will say we should be grateful for the roof over our heads. But what about our dignity? They should have provided a bathroom so that we can bath in warm water. Now we are risking catching flu and this COVID-19,” says the father of two from Philippi.

Fassie says he was working in the Cape Town harbour as a fisherman but lived on the street after he lost his job due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I was renting a shack in a yard and my landlord kicked me out and took all my belongings, including my ID, after I couldn’t afford to pay rent. I had no choice but to come and live on the streets of Cape Town. Now I can’t even access the R350 relief grant for the unemployed because I don’t have an ID. Many of us here don’t have IDs and we’ve been calling on the City authorities to assist us to no avail,” Fassie says.

Kevin Pillay, also homeless, works as a monitor at the Culemborg shelter.

“One thing that often annoys me about how the homeless are perceived out there,” he says “is that [people think] we are just some clueless druggies and papsak-suip(ing) okes. But there’s more to the homeless people than that. There are lawyers, engineers, teachers and doctors among us. But because of different situations, we are finding ourselves on the streets. I just hope people would think twice before judging the homeless.”

Marius Abrahams also found shelter at the Culemborg site. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

The Culemborg shelter can accommodate 250 homeless people but because of the COVID-19 regulations they are only accommodating 96 people.

It is a freezing evening in Cape Town when Spotlight visits the site and looking out the window, Pillay says he and most of the homeless people there would shiver from the cold on the streets by now, had it not been for the shelter.

Supporting shelters for the homeless

Badroodien says the City has no direct role in the establishment and running of shelters, or oversight.

“That said, we partner with NGOs who operate shelters and provide funding and resources where possible, particularly during winter when the demand for shelter space increases due to the inclement weather. So far, in this financial year, we have disbursed R50 million to organisations working with vulnerable groups, including street people,” he says.

“The money will go towards building extra capacity that should sustain the organisations for at least six months. The City has also established safe spaces which act as pre-shelters to rough sleepers,” says Badroodien.

The City works through a ‘Grant-in-Aid’ (GIA) policy, which is a process that allows the Municipal Council to identify organisations to deliver services on behalf of the City.

What monitoring and evaluation is in place to ensure that this aid is used for the intended purpose?

Badroodien says that all organisations funded through the grant-in-aid policy are required to provide monthly expenditure reports. “In addition, each shelter is visited at least once a month to monitor the work being done. A separate meeting is set up with the resident social worker to determine progress with the individual development plan for each of the residents. The quality of food provided is also regularly assessed to ensure that the standards required by the City is maintained,” he says.

Disinfectant to improve hygiene at the Culemborg Shelter. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

He stresses that the City of Cape Town is not involved in the health and hygiene protocols for independently run shelters.

“As indicated, at our safe spaces we conduct daily screenings. We have also implemented social distancing protocols, hence the lower than normal capacity, and have made soap, masks and sanitisers available at the sites to ensure that the occupants can abide by health and hygiene protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure,” he explains. “We have provided funding for sanitary packs and cleaning materials as part of the humanitarian relief.”

In a joint response from the Western Cape Departments of Social Development (DSD) and Health, DSD spokesperson, Esther Lewis, informs Spotlight the departments provided PPE to the various shelters and continue to do so. “The PPEs include sanitisers and face shields. The DSD doesn’t own or directly manage shelters.” According to Lewis there are also social workers at the shelters who provide individual counselling, referral and support services.

Soup and bread for dinner at The Haven Night Shelter in Woodstock. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
Getting ready for dinner at the Culemborg shelter. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

And hot water?

Responding to the lack of hot water at Culemborg, executive support officer for Badroodien, Pierre Gertenbach, says they were aware of the concerns and “the matter would be addressed in due course”.

Spokesperson for the outreach organisation, the Homeless Action Committee, Carlos Mesquitta, says they are aware of the challenges homeless people face at some shelters in the City. “That people are not provided with hot water to bathe and that they have to use buckets is a violation of their human dignity,” says Mesquitta adding that there is still a long way before the “real” issues affecting homeless people in Cape Town can be addressed.

“It is not about the COVID-19 pandemic and feeling sorry for them. Government needs to find a solution to address the challenges faced by homeless people post the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also human beings and need to be heard and have their human rights respected.”

Isaac Hendricks, the duty manager at The Haven Night Shelter. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

The Haven: No positive cases

At the Haven Night Shelter in Woodstock, the situation is different and less crowded than at the Culemborg shelter. Isaac Hendricks, who works as a duty manager at the shelter, says they can accommodate 90 homeless people.

Hendricks is proud of the fact that they have not yet recorded a COVID-19 positive case since the lockdown started.

According to him they work with both the health and social development department and regularly liaise about progress with COVID-19 measures.

“We are doing our best to follow the regulations and I must say we are fortunate to work with the homeless people who are very disciplined and are just grateful to have meals and a roof over their heads,” he says.

Personal hygiene to limit transmission of COVID-19 is taken seriously at The Haven shelter. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

The Haven Night Shelter is one of the shelters that the City of Cape Town funds.

Since the start of lockdown, Howard Ishmail (75) found shelter at The Haven.

“We are wearing our masks all the time and practising social distance. Life is way much better here,” he says.

One of the dorms at The Haven shelter accommodating homeless people living on the streets. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Will improvements be sustained after the pandemic?

With the country moving to lockdown Alert Level Two from 18 August, the City of Cape Town says it has no plans of taking down the Culemborg Shelter and it plans to make it a permanent residence site for the homeless.

Spokesperson for the City’s Homeless Agency Committee, Ncumisa Mahangu says it is “their wish that the site can be turned into a permanent residence”.

“But a decision will be taken after lockdown to determine how more homeless people can be accommodated at the shelter,” says Mahangu.

Shaun Julies, is a painter who is now homeless. Julies says life was good when he could sell paintings and support himself. “But then one day the tourists bought all my stuff and I made R74000. I was so excited that I went on a drinking spree and had women competing for my bed. I then soon found myself penniless and living on the streets.” PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

For homeless people like Shaun Julies, it is a relief to hear there are these plans in the pipeline.

“Of course the treatment here (Culemborg) is not a five-star one, but it’s better than living on the streets. I will be happy if they can make this our permanent residency,” says Julies.

But while some solutions are being found at local level, there appears to be little direction or help from national government level. Recently Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, in an answer to a parliamentary question admitted that there “is currently no clarity at national level in terms of the lead department dealing with homelessness”. Zulu said in provinces such as Gauteng, there is no specific budget in DSD for homeless people, and no specific social workers assigned to work with the homeless other than those (homeless people) using shelters. There is also no official consolidated register for homeless people besides the register individual shelters usually keep.