Hard life of the homeless
Estimated 60% have homes but choose street
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.”
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.
HELPING HAND: MyLifE founder Linzi Thomas tries to help homeless people by promoting their plight.