Homeless and hopeless: Sleeping on the street

A group of homeless migrants share their experiences with researchers from the African Center for Migration and Society at a car park on Prinsloo Street, Pretoria.

A group of homeless migrants share their experiences with researchers from the African Center for Migration and Society at a car park on Prinsloo Street, Pretoria.

Every morning several homeless people flock to the Tshwane Leadership Foundation for breakfast at 8am. Breakfast time is a good time to meet with them.

Stephen Themba, a social worker at the foundation, has organised the meeting with some of the men. My colleagues and I are here to listen to the personal narratives of the homeless men in order to understand what their needs are.
The meeting is part of a broader research on the needs and vulnerabilities of the homeless.

The foundation offices were busy when we arrived. We were ushered through to the dining area, where the tables were filled with cabbages and other vegetables that due to be prepared for the evening meal.

The meeting was to take place at one of the dining tables. We waited for over an hour but no one came to the table for the session.

At 10am, Themba and my colleague Aline went out to the streets to try and convince a group of eight to 10 homeless men to speak to us.

An hour later, a group of 10 men converged around the table and led us into the narratives of the underground life of their homeless existence.

They talked of the lure to the city in search of a better life, the difficulty in finding jobs, the loss of their identity cards, bank cards and academic papers, insecurity on the streets and how the homelessness has affected their marriages – some have been divorced.

Despite these challenges, many still hoped to get gainful employment in the city in order to support their families.

Going back home was not an option.

Phani (40) is from Mpumalanga. Married with two children, his wife left him when he suffered a series of job losses and ended up homeless.

"My wife is gone. She even changed the numbers. Sometimes I want to call her to talk to her and ask what is going on," he explained.

Home for Phani is the premises of a company that repairs windscreens. He sweeps the compound in exchange for sleeping on the premises.

"The guys used to let us sweep and clean the place in return for sleeping there."

Times changed when other people started misbehaving and the owner sent them all away.

"Some of us are careless. We do things not acceptable to other people," Phani said. "The owner told us not to be there."

But with no home to go to, he sneaks onto the company premises every night to sleep.

"We risk. We wake up early before he [the owner] comes and we put our belongings on the roof. Then we wait for the workers to go home."

Sleeping outside, Phani explained, is tough. When it rains and is windy, they spend the whole night standing up. He said the previous night's rain was terrible and all his things are wet.

All he wants is an opportunity to work.

"If I can get a job, I can do anything," he says.

But the job search has its number of challenges. Phani has worked in warehouses like picking items at certain Spar outlets.

Having dropped out of school in grade 12, he has no academic documents but going back home is not an option.

He cannot get help from his family because his brothers have their own family commitments and he does not want to burden them.

"My brother is paying a lot of money for his first son at university. So I would be giving him a lot of stress with my problems," he said. "May be one day I can get a job. But for now I have to sleep on the street."

Phani is struggling because he wants to support his children. Their school fees cost R160 per year, which he says is not much. The larger costs are uniforms and food.

"My children need to eat. Children have a lot of problems if they are hungry."

He blames the lack of finances for triggering theft among homeless people especially if one has children.

"I am having a lot of stress. A situation like this you could end up in jail. If you take months with no job, you might end up stealing because you think of your own children. You see that is why some people end up taking [stealing]," he said.

Phani is one of the many homeless men who go to the Tshwane Leadership Foundation every morning for breakfast – bread and tea or coffee. The foundation works with churches and communities for urban transformation. According to its website, the foundation "is committed to help build healthy urban communities in places of struggle and / or transition, and wants to demonstrate that it is possible to strengthen urban areas in ways that are radically inclusive socially and economically".

Through its outreach programme, Akanani, the foundation has worked with adult homeless people in inner city Pretoria since 1997. The aim is to let the untold stories of hope and successful re-integration into the society that rarely make it in the public domain. Through its offices, Akanani: "seeks to create spaces in which homeless people can re-connect, recover their dignity, and access the resources that will re-integrate them into communities. At the same time Akanani wants to tell the stories of homeless people—both stories of struggle but definitely also the amazing stories of hope."

Search for a better life

Many men come to Pretoria seeking a better life and jobs in order to provide for their families. Patrick, 42, has been sleeping on the streets of Pretoria since he left Mafikeng in early 2011.

He says he left home because the provinces are small and jobs are scarce.  However, life in Pretoria has not been as easy as he had imagined.

"I am still struggling to find a decent job. You cannot find permanent jobs. You only find piece jobs where they pay you daily. You struggle to find decent jobs," he says.

Getting jobs is difficult with no identity cards, academic certificates or money to process the required papers. Patrick says the required certificates cost much more than what he earns from the short-term jobs.

"If you want a certificate, you must have R500. If you do piece jobs, they pay R100 per day, and you are going to spend that money on food," he says.

Since he lost his job, Patrick says his wife, a social worker, has left him and taken their three children.

"You cannot stay with a woman when you are not financially balanced," he sighs.

Nowhere to keep their property

With nowhere to sleep or keep their documents, the men said they keep all their belongings- documents, blankets and other valuables – in plastic bags which they carry with them at all times. They have to find safe places where to keep their plastic bags and sometimes, they lose the bags.

44 year old Peter from Rustenberg left his wife and two daughters to look for a job in Pretoria. He says the street life is tough especially when one has lost their documents.

"Sleeping in the street is difficult," he says, "You have to have all your documents when you go seeking for a job. I lost mine."

He says he lost all his belongings because he could not carry his plastic bag with him all day.

Tsepho, 30, alleges that sometimes the street cleaners under the pretext of cleaning up check for important papers in the plastic bags, which they later sell.

"You find the workers cleaning the street, they check for important papers. You have heard of stories of people who sell identity cards? If they find documents, they change them and sell them to somebody," he says. "So you see, they destroy your plans for the future."

So many homeless people, Tsepho says, decide to walk with their bags to avoid such loses.

It is a challenge walking around with a plastic bag filled with personal effects while job hunting.

 "Like Tsepho says, you do not leave your plastic. It is not safe to leave your plastic. Most people who steal our bags are those who will steal the blankets for themselves. They are like us," Patrick interjects, "No one can hire you if you are carrying your bag."

Tsepho says the state of homelessness creates a number of challenges.

"You find that you do not sleep in one place. You end up with a problem of carrying your things," he says.

Sometimes the owners of the premises call security on them and they move from place to place because they have no residential address, he says.

"You lose jobs, so if you do not stay in one place, no one recognises you, and it makes it hard for someone to find you and tell you about a job opening," he says.

He adds that people and the police take them for criminals, "They do not realize that this [homelessness] is just a condition we are going through."

"So when you are on the street, you survive the insecurity," Tsepho whispers.

At the time of the interview, Phani had been attacked and his mobile phone stolen. He says three men, who were also homeless, attacked him at his sleeping point and took his phone at knife point.

When asked whether he had reported the incident to the police, he said it was no use.

Tsepho adds, "even if you open a case with the police. They do not take you serious. When you go out they just throw it [file] away. They will not take you serious as long as you are on the street."

Patrick says that to protect themselves from attacks, they walk and sleep in groups.

"It is survival for the fittest on the streets. Like one thing uhmm…we can protect ourselves. You do not have to sleep alone. At least try and be in a group of 3-5. If you are alone, anyone can attack you but if you are many, you can defend yourselves," Patrick says.

Call for help

Akanani is overwhelmed with the numbers of people seeking their help.  Patrick says, "there are shelters but cannot accommodate everyone. So you stay until you find a job and feel like doing and do yourself."

On the evening of Tuesday 11, September, we joined the outreach team on the soup kitchen route. The dinner for the evening was vegetables and bread.

The first stop was outside the foundation office building before hitting the streets. When the van was about to leave, one woman came running for food. The volunteers stopped to give her food before driving off.

Christian, a newly arrived young German volunteer, was the driver for the night. He drove the food van through the city streets to the different locations where the homeless congregated.

As the car crawled through the streets of Pretoria and parked at the different locations, more and more people came to the van for the food. The Akanani staff served the vegetables and bread. By the time the van got to the City Hall gardens, the bread was finished, and the other two stop-over points for the food delivery only received vegetables.

Themba, who has been working with Akanani for over six years, says Albany Bakery donates over 200 loaves of bread to the center every week. He says that the outdoor soup kitchen reaches between 80-100 people every Tuesday night

Jacob, a homeless migrant from Malawi, says: "Akanani is an NGO. They need donors. There are too many people all depending on this small organization. If other big organisations can put and also come and at least help."

Patrick adds that Akanani depends on donations, "Nowadays they depend on donations, and so if there are no donations, even us, we get nothing."

Jackee Budesta Batanda is a writing fellow at the African Center for Migration and Society (ACMS). Follow her on twitter @jackeebatanda

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