Old, alone and no place to call home

Sonya Rykers worries how to stretch every rand. (David Harrison, M&G)

Sonya Rykers worries how to stretch every rand. (David Harrison, M&G)

Pensioners live on R1 350 a month, or R45 a day. A major challenge for them is finding affordable accommodation on such a limited budget.

The Constitution says everyone has the right to adequate housing and, according to the Housing Act of 1997, “national, provincial and local spheres of government must … promote the meeting of special needs housing”.

Special needs housing is state-subsidised accommodation aimed at the most vulnerable groups in society such as orphans, disabled people, victims of domestic abuse, the homeless and the elderly.

The reality, however, is that the provision of affordable housing for these groups – including social pensioners, people on the state’s older persons grant – has fallen through the cracks.

“I don’t have family. There is no one,” says Sonya Rykers, a pensioner who is trying to find budget accommodation.
“I’m tired of working. I worked all my life. It was hard days.”

Rykers (64) has always worked in factories – her first job at the age of 15 was as a dried-fruit sorter in Wellington, a winelands town 70km from Cape Town. Using her state pension, she rents the back section of a house in Kensington, Cape Town, for R1 000 a month. She has lived there since 1991, when the rent was R450. At the time she was employed as a machinist in a leather shoe factory. Her last job was in a factory that produced canvas for yachts.

In 2012 she decided she wanted to retire. Since then, she has been looking for more affordable accommodation to suit her R1 350 pension.

Rykers was adopted and grew up in a humble home in Wellington. She left school at 15 because she had to start working; her family needed the income. Her adoptive father worked in a leather tanning factory.

Rykers’s half-brother taught her how to use a sewing machine when she was a teenager – a skill that proved invaluable. “That’s how I became a machinist,” she says.

For her, it was all about survival. “I was always travelling [for work]. The money was just enough. I boarded all over, at people’s houses. Factory workers don’t earn that much.”

Rykers managed to save a little money, but her modest savings are running out.

The thought of ageing did cross her mind in her younger days.

“I always thought that when I’m finished working, I want to go to [an old age] home. I don’t want to worry about money any more. But the thing is, money goes quickly. I’m desperate for a [cheaper] place.”

She says she has not been able to find accommodation through Communicare, a nonprofit organisation that deals with social housing, because she can’t secure surety – she has no family. Rykers is one of 40 pensioners on the waiting list at the Neighbourhood Old Age Home (Noah), a group-housing model for the elderly.

She does not want to be alone in her old age. But, says Rykers, “there’s no place. Everywhere there’s a long list.”

Rykers isn’t the only state pensioner struggling to find cheaper accommodation.

“I didn’t bargain that I’m going to get this old. I thought I was going to die,” says 68-year-old Mynhardt Kotze. He speaks from the terrace of the St Monica’s geriatrics centre in the Bo-Kaap, overlooking the Cape Town city bowl.

Somewhat fittingly, Engelbert Humperdinck can be heard crooning “There goes my only possession/ There goes my everything” from one of the residents’ rooms.

“I never knew I’m going to end up here,” adds Kotze. At St Monica’s, “an A-class shelter”, he pays R900 a month for a shared dormitory room. With the remaining R450 he buys toiletries and fruit.

Born in Pinelands in 1946, Kotze matriculated in 1963 and obtained a mechanical engineering degree from Stellenbosch University. He never married – something he regrets.

His career took him many places, from the Parachute Battalion (Parabats) in Bloemfontein to steel ships in Saldanha Bay and a diamond mine in Oranjemund in Namibia. His last job was on a game farm in the Free State. That’s when he heard about St Monica’s, to which he moved in 2012.

There aren’t many other options for Kotze. Like Rykers, he is also on Noah’s waiting list. Kotze was accepted at an old age home in Moorreesburg in the Swartland region, but he prefers to be in the city – and independent.

“At least here I can take my bicycle to Sea Point and go to swim.” He also attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week. Kotze is scared he may end up homeless. “It’s not nice nowadays to be homeless, to be outside. I’ve had rough times enough in my life.”

Ivy Lynette Klein moved into a Noah home this year, where she pays R357 for rent and clinic fees. “I am blessed and lucky. I could have been on the streets,” she says.

A machinist by trade, Klein (64) is the daughter of a coloured domestic worker mother and a white father. Apartheid kept her parents apart.

Klein says the Noah model “suits me because I’ve got my own independence. I’ve always been a very independent person.”

She is one of the lucky few. For the rest, they could be forgiven for thinking that the government is dragging its heels in finding a solution.

Civil society has long been advocating for housing for the country’s most vulnerable – something that is stipulated in the Housing Act.

But, currently, “special needs housing is not provided for within the policies and programmes of the national department of human settlements, despite certain provincial departments [Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng] having proactively done so for many years”, says Gladys Mirugi-Mukundi, a researcher at the Community Law Centre (CLC) in Cape Town.

The departments of social development and human settlements are investigating “to determine which national department is obliged to assume responsibility for a government assistance programme”, says housing ministry spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya. This research, in turn, will inform future national policy.

Although this is a positive step, civil society bodies believe the wait has been too long – it could take years before a policy on special needs housing is implemented.

The CLC co-ordinates a civil society task team on special needs housing – an umbrella group of some 118 organisations that advocates for improved access to state-subsidised housing.

Mirugi-Mukundi said a major stumbling block is that the country’s housing code does not provide for the development of a national special needs housing policy. “This, in turn, impedes the development of such policies at provincial and local government levels,” she added.

A legal brief recently produced by Annette May of the CLC found that provincial human settlements departments “have the mandate to develop their own [special needs housing] policies within the overall framework of the Housing Act and housing code, and to utilise existing subsidy instruments”.

The Western Cape’s human settlements department launched a special needs housing policy with the provincial departments of social development and health in 2009, but this was withdrawn in 2012.

The province’s Nathan Adriaanse says it is “in the process of reviewing the 2009 policy and this process is linked to the national research and policy initiative that is underway”.

“Housing for older persons is the hidden crisis,” says Gavin Weir, co-ordinator of the Sector Task Team for Older Persons (Stop) and the housing manager for Noah, where Rykers and Kotze are on the waiting list.

“The public has the view that there is housing for the elderly. But the reality is that there is no immediate solution,” says Wier.

“That’s why we’re pushing [the department of human settlements] to build more housing stock, to enable people living on R45 a day a modicum of dignity.“We [civil society] recognise that we ourselves can’t address the housing backlog.”

According to Weir, Noah’s group-housing model is appropriate for elderly people who are independent, fit and well. He describes the home as “student digs for social pensioners”.

The group-housing model is based on the concept of economies of scale: by bringing together a group of people on a social pensioner’s limited income and pooling resources, living costs become more affordable.

“There’s an acute shortage of this type of housing for social pensioners,” says Weir, adding that 112 residents live in Noah’s 12 houses across Cape Town. There are about five vacancies a year, and 40 people on the waiting list.

“It’s a microcosm for the wider crisis,” he says. “I don’t want to worry about money any more. But money goes quickly. I’m desperate for a cheaper place”

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