Jozi’s cold comfort between the cracks

Alfred Skolisa has spent five years on the streets of Hillbrow, selling scrap metal to survive. He says life is tough but bearable – except in winter. That's when the crack pipe comes out. Nothing or no one else is going to help. At least, that's what Alfred believes.

"The only thing anyone ever does is chase us," he says.

"The police come, threaten us with arrest and we scatter but we come straight back after about 10 minutes," he coughs from the comfort of his mattress perched on a disused flower bed adjacent to Pullinger Kop Park.

Skolisa is a drug addict and an alcoholic. He says the crack he smokes and wine he drinks every day helps him endure the freezing temperatures at night.

"My friends have died here on the street from the cold, but I can't do anything about it."

Skolisa's tale is mirrored by Sipho Dladla, who sleeps on a basketball court in Pullinger.

"The city used to come regularly to help us and say they'll take us some place safe, but now they don't come back, they just leave us here. Sometimes the police come and burn our blankets and chase us away – but where must we go?" Dladla asked.

Mzungeni Ngcobo rubs his hands together as he stands outside his shack, shivering in what little of the weak winter sun that makes it down to the Mangolongolo informal settlement along Main Reef Road in Denver, Johannesburg.

Ngcobo says he's been living here for 20 years.

"We try to make fires to keep warm in winter," he says. "It's not healthy to breathe in smoke in our shack but blankets are not enough. Every year fires get out of control, shacks are destroyed and people die."

"I am not angry – why must I be? I take what I can get. I survive on my pension and try  keep warm in winter. I see people die here every year. It's normal."

This is the general mood among the many homeless and residents of informal settlements in inner Johannesburg who feel abandoned by the city's administration.

Sifundo Dlamini, a community leader in Mangolongolo, says they receive little in the way of help from officials. "The city and local government do nothing for us, even though we protest all the time, nothing happens. The most help we have gotten is from Wika – a local business. They give us blankets and some soup when it's really cold."

The cold is bad enough, but Ngcobo and Dlamini say people also die in fires every year. In the worst case of the past few years, a fire that ripped through Mangolongolo in 2010 destroyed 238 shacks. And four people died.

Their tale – along with those of other residents – is far from unique, similar stories can be heard across the city, as temperatures and spirits drop.

Common theme
A common theme of helplessness and abandonment runs through the stories recounted by those struggling to stay warm as highveld temperatures plummet.

But, according to city authorities, a lot is being done to assist the poor in winter.

"You should come and see what the city does for people living and working on the streets. This first-hand experience is important in the same way that you were able to go and meet the people who live and work on the streets to inform to your article," says Gabu Tugwana, Johannesburg city spokesperson.

Tugwana says the City of Johannesburg established a displaced persons unit in 2009 to "respond to the challenges of people who live and work on the streets".

"It is a team that is staffed with social workers and community developers who divide their time between outreach work and running care centres in association with NGOs. The city programme runs throughout the year and the services are consistent," he says.

But the problem of homelessness is widespread, according to Jacob Modise, assistant project manager at Immaculata shelter in Rosebank.

The shelter, which is set up in a converted hall, accommodates about 100 people a night and runs a soup kitchen during the day for about 200 people.

Sleeping on the streets
Space at the shelter is provided on a first come, first serve basis each evening. Modise distributes blankets to those who arrive too late to get a place to stay overnight.

"Some sleep at Zoo Lake, or in parking lots, or in bus stops," says Modise.

"The people we can't accommodate, they're sleeping on the streets or in abandoned houses," he says. Every now and again, they're discovered by police and have to abandon their belongings and run. Still, it's not the worst that Modise knows of.

"Some people in town are sleeping with [pieces of] plastic," he says.

The shelter tries to help get people off the street and into employment but it's difficult.

"It's very difficult. A piece job you can get, but a permanent job is very difficult," he says.

Dying of exposure
In spite of the attempts by both the city and NGOs, more and more of Johannesburg's poor and homeless are dying every winter.

Netcare 911's Jeffrey Wicks says it's hard to track exact numbers because cases of hypothermia are often logged as different conditions.

Many are logged as "unconscious collapse" because the people calling can't actually articulate what has happened – they may describe it based on the symptoms and complain that the patient is having breathing difficulty or abdominal pain.

Lungiswa Mvumvu, public relations officer for Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, says two patients with hypothermia came in for treatment last week Tuesday. "They were homeless people from Hillbrow … brought in by paramedics," she says. The pair were treated and discharged after two days.

Helen Joseph Hospital's Lovey Mogapi says that while the hospital always anticipates a slight increase in the number of cases of exposure seen in winter, this year the number of cases seen was about 10% higher than last year.

Dr Melanie Stander, spokesperson for the Emergency Medical Society of South Africa believes the plight of the homeless and poor in winter is indicative of a failure by the authorities to honour their social contract to protect the vulnerable.

"Winter puts a big strain on people, suddenly those cracks in the system start to show … the environment becomes more extreme and the coping mechanisms for people are not there."

In spite of an overwhelming sense among the needy that the state has failed to care for them, Allan Beutter, Hillbrow resident since 1988 told the M&G that "hand-outs" were not the answer.

"I don't pay taxes so maybe I can't complain. There should be some support but instead of simply helping people, there should be jobs.

People are willing to work and help themselves – that's the best way to keep warm," he added.

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