/ 18 January 2019

Down and out in the Mother City

Score: The harsh circumstances of living on the street can be numbed for as little as R20
Score: The harsh circumstances of living on the street can be numbed for as little as R20, which is all it costs for enough heroin to stay stoned for half a day. Photos: David Harrison

In the early morning, huddled bodies wrapped in plastic and blankets rest against the white painted walls of the outer perimeter of the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town. Later in the day, needles and syringes lie scattered there.

“We were never bothered by police at Parliament,” says Joshua Kangsley. “I have slept a couple of times there. It’s the only area in the whole city where they don’t kick you awake or pull yourself or take yourself away. Sometimes by the police station as well.”

Though there is no hard data, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and social development agencies have noticed a steady increase in the number of heroin and other drug users in Cape Town’s central business district.

Homelessness in the parliamentary precinct is not new. For years now, two elderly couples have slept under benches close to a police guard post. Across the road, along the walls of St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, homeless people regularly settle in for the night.

There has long been an unspoken treaty between police and the elderly couples. A senior police officer at Parliament not authorised to speak to the media says their agreement is they can sleep on the pavement under the scrutiny of the police hut if they don’t cause trouble and keep the area clean. In winter, it’s not unknown for police or parliamentary workers to hand over food to the couples as they walk by.

In the morning, they fold up their rudimentary bedding, tuck it away under a bench and spend the rest of the day watching people, politicians and sometimes even the president entering the precinct.

The new lodgers on the parliamentary pavement have other habits. They’re younger. Less sober. They make their beds a short distance away from the elderly couples. TV news crews who set up their satellite vans outside Parliament regularly have to watch their step, or risk treading on an empty syringe. The two groups appear to keep their distance. The old couples on one side of General Louis Botha on his horse, the addicts on the other side.

“There certainly has been increased visibility of drug injecting in the CBD,” says Rudolph Basson, from the NGO TB HIV Care.

Kangsley’s baby face would be handsome if not for the years of heroin addiction. While he speaks, he rubs his mouth, as if he’s wiping away invisible spittle. When silent, he rests his thumb under his chin and covers his mouth with two fingers as if to hide his lack of teeth.

He is originally from Mitchells Plain and is one of the dozens of predominantly young men who call the city centre their home.

They come mostly because of poor socioeconomic circumstances — but also for the cheap and easily available heroin in the city.

“I was first back in Lentegeur using tik and, because things were rough at home, I was stealing from the house. I got thrown out and then I found out there was a life happening here and you could live on your own on the streets and [there] was more money. It wasn’t struggling so much. So I moved to town,” Kangsley says.

Not all parts of the city are as friendly to addicts on the streets. Adeeb Williams, originally from Rocklands, a suburb of Mitchells Plain, says they’re often targets of law enforcement and Central Improvement District security guards, whereas those who sell the drug walk free.

“The cops will see you buy. But the cops will arrest you, not the dealer,” he says. “When you’re outside on the road and you can’t stand for yourself and your belongings, it’s not yours. It’s survival of the fittest. No one is going to help you. The police will see you get robbed, and you will get robbed. That’s how it is,” he says.

Both men talk of victimisation by the police, law enforcement and business owners, who for years have been trying to develop the Cape Town city centre as a tourist-friendly mecca.

“Majority of the time it’s security who won’t wake us up properly … We need to get up like dogs. They’ll kick us awake. Or sometimes, when we are sleeping in the wrong areas, they’ll take our stuff away, like our clothing and our blankets. And then we struggle to find more.”

But the police around Parliament seem to have a more laissez-faire approach. One Parliamentary Police official, who asked not to be named, said: “I once caught a guy under his blanket with a needle already in his arm. What was I supposed to do, arrest him?

“And then he gets assaulted in prison and tomorrow he’s out again.

“Even the old people, they’re not supposed to be there but there’s nothing we can do. The CCID [Central City Improvement District] and the city have the responsibility to deal with homelessness,” he adds.

The police officer says the heroin users migrated from a derelict building just 100m from the parliamentary precinct. “But the building has a new owner who put a fence around the entrance, so now they moved here.”

Those hooked on heroin say it’s relatively easy to obtain and, at R20 a hit, it’s cheap. One unit of heroin usually lasts for half a day before they need another fix.

Williams says injecting heroin numbs him. “It gives you a kind of numbness and [has] a euphoric feeling to it.”

Kangsley agrees, saying the fix helps him come to terms with living on the street. “It’s like a morphine rush; you don’t feel anything.

“When I first used heroin, it made me feel accepted. It made me feel like everything was going to be okay. Where in real life, where you’re sober, everything just hits, like you want to give up on life.

“Heroin takes all that away. With the first hit.”

Even for users like Williams, he says he feels some shame when he has to inject in public. But sometimes the need for a fix is too great.

“As an addict, you don’t have that kind of emotion any more. You lose that, because you’re only thinking of the next fix. You don’t respect yourself any more.

“What I would do is I rather go to a toilet to keep myself out of the eyes. Because I always think someone who knows my mother would walk past me,” he says.

Basson welcomes the fact that homeless addicts can find some safety in the city centre, for instance outside Parliament, and says reports of victimisation are minimal.

“We do have reports of people who use drugs [having] their belongings, including their IDs, confiscated by police, being arbitrarily searched, even being physically assaulted by police. However, this doesn’t happen as frequently in the [city centre] as [it does] in some outlying areas,” he says.