Hard life of the home­less

Es­ti­mated 60% have homes but choose street

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - LEILA SAMODIEN

CHRIST­MAS is al­ways a tough time for the home­less of Cape Town but this fes­tive sea­son will be es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult for David Wil­liams.

He was seven years old when he first killed some­one. His vic­tim was an “en­emy” who’d beat him up ev­ery day af­ter school.

“My fa­ther gave me a knife,” he said. “He told me, ‘Stop cry­ing to me. Here, pro­tect your­self.’”

But Wil­liams hadn’t known how to han­dle a knife. He was only a child, grow­ing up in a work­ing-class fam­ily in District Six. “I only wanted to cut him,” he said, shak­ing his head.

Wil­liams was locked away in a cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity for boys.

Now he’s 50 years old, and since the first time he was in­car­cer­ated at the age of seven, he has been a free man for only about three years of his life.

He was re­leased from the cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity when he was 17, soon af­ter an es­cape at­tempt.

A lit­tle over two years later, Wil­liams was ar­rested again – this time for murder and armed rob­bery. He was sen­tenced to 30 years in prison.

Slowly, Wil­liams lost con­tact with his sis­ters. His par­ents died. He be­came em­broiled in a vi­cious prison gang. And he cov­ered his body in tat­toos: “It’s a tra­di­tion. In prison, I was ac­cepted be­cause of this,” he ex­plained, touch­ing his ink-stained face.

In Jan­uary, he was fi­nally re­leased. He was dropped off in Long Street in the city cen­tre, be­wil­dered and pen­ni­less.

Wil­liams said he tried to get a job but no one would hire him with his tat­toos and crim­i­nal record. Even if he could find his sis­ters, he didn’t want to bur­den them. So Wil­liams turned to a life on the streets. He slept on pave­ments and in door­ways un­der card­board and news­pa­per. He scav­enged for food, steal­ing here and there when he could.

“I didn’t have free­dom for three decades and more,” he said. “It’s like a wild an­i­mal in a cage. When it gets out, it doesn’t know free­dom.”

In May, Wil­liams was again jailed for steal­ing a car. He was re­leased six months later, on Novem­ber 2. He is one of count­less street peo­ple liv­ing across Cape Town.

How­ever, no­body knows just how many street peo­ple there are spread across the city. With the num­ber of home­less peo­ple vary­ing with the sea­son, and many home­less peo­ple mov­ing around all the time, it is im­pos­si­ble to count ac­cu­rately.

Wayne Alridge, prin­ci­pal in­spec­tor of the City of Cape Town’s Dis­placed Peo­ple’s Unit, said that based just on com­plaints they had re­ceived be­tween Jan­uary and Oc­to­ber, their unit had counted 8 325 peo­ple – 2 861 women, 5 340 men and 124 mi­nors.

He said 60 per­cent of home­less peo­ple had homes to go to.

“But, be­cause of fi­nan­cial, crim­i­nal and so­cial prob­lems, their fam­ily tells them to leave or they choose to live on the street.”

The DPU has been crit­i­cised sharply by street peo­ple, who be­lieve the au­thor­i­ties – in­clud­ing the Cen­tral Im­prove­ment District and po­lice – are too harsh on them.

MyLifE founder Linzi Thomas said home­less peo­ple of­ten com­plained to her that they were treated in­hu­manely – wo­ken in the mid­dle of the night to be ar­rested, their things con­fis­cated and never re­turned, and some­times even abused.

Alridge said that in the past, there had been hap­haz­ard law en­force­ment op­er­a­tions in which street peo­ple were man­han­dled or dumped by the way­side.

This was no longer the case be­cause their of­fi­cers were spe­cially trained to work with the home­less in a hu­mane way – train­ing they were plan­ning to im­part to other city of­fi­cers.

He said all their op­er­a­tions were planned care­fully and that they al­ways teamed up with the city’s so­cial devel­op­ment depart­ment. The home­less peo­ple they en­coun­tered were al­ways given the chance to be taken to a fam­ily mem­ber, an NGO or a shel­ter.

“Ev­ery per­son we come across has the op­por­tu­nity to be re­lo­cated. Our goal is not to take ev­ery­one off the street; some peo­ple can’t be re-in­te­grated back into their com­mu­ni­ties. Our goal is to man­age them and to get them to man­age them­selves in a way that’s so­cially ac­cept­able.”

San­dra Mor­reira, di­rec­tor of The Homestead, a shel­ter for chil­dren, said Cape Town was very or­gan­ised when it came to ser­vices for street chil­dren.

When they wan­dered into the city cen­tre, they were picked up quickly and re­lo­cated at a shel­ter, where they got ba­sic ser­vices and ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion.

How­ever, there was a gap in ser­vices when it came to youths be­tween the ages of 18 and 26, as well as adults.

Thomas said it could take years to get just one youth off the street and shel­ters proved to be noth­ing but “re­volv­ing doors”.

“Peo­ple will go back be­cause they haven’t bro­ken their bond with the street. This is what they know.”

Their job was about em­pow­er­ing home­less peo­ple – most of whom had ad­dic­tions – by pro­vid­ing them with life skills and heal­ing that would help them deal with their own lives. Yet, home­less peo­ple like Wil­liams see no end to their lives on the street. All he knows for sure is that he never wants to go back to prison.

“I want a chance to help the youth to un­der­stand what I went through, so they never have to.”

PIC­TURE: DAVID RITCHIE

HARD LIV­ING: David Wil­liams has spent most of his life in prison, and af­ter be­ing re­leased from a 30-year sen­tence this year, he is home­less.

PIC­TURE: DAVID RITCHIE

HELP­ING HAND: MyLifE founder Linzi Thomas tries to help home­less peo­ple by pro­mot­ing their plight.

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