/ 16 April 2020

Inside Strandfontein: Cape Town’s Covid-19 homeless site

Strandfontein Covid 19 Homeless Camp Dh 4900
Covid-19 homeless site has been criticised for being inadequate to shelter the most vulnerable from the coronavirus storm, while drug addicts say they’re being left to suffer due to inadequate medical attention. (David Harrison/M&G)

April is the time of year children, young men and women are active on the Strandfontein sports grounds. Football teams would have already started training for the winter-sport season. 

But there is no sport here. 

Instead, the sports ground is now the site for a massive temporary shelter that houses homeless people who have been removed from Cape Town’s streets to limit their exposure to the virus. 

Currently, the site hosts about 1 500 homeless people, with space for about 2 000 people in total. 

There are four large marquee tents. Inside this is a floor base with mattresses lined up. This is the main sleeping area. There are smaller tents alongside used as a medical station, food halls, and storage facilities. 

On-site are about 100 city law enforcement officers and private security personnel. They patrol inside and along the outside perimeter of the facility. There are also 15 city healthcare workers and other medical staff provided by NGOs.

People were brought here by bus from all corners of the city. Some said they appreciate the respite swapping a piece of cardboard on a concrete floor of a mattress and a blanket. Others say the close quarters defeats the purpose of social distancing to minimise the spread of Coronavirus.

Some have even likened it to an open-air prison. But the city has reiterated people are free to leave if they have accommodation to go to. 

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There have also been questions asked about the location of the site. Strandfontein is on the False Bay coast. During winter months strong gales and heavy rains rip through this part of the city about 30 kilometres from the city bowl.

And there are fears that people could be trapped here if the lockdown continues well into winter months. 

Residents of the working-to-middle class suburb of Strandfontein also say they were not consulted about the erection of the site in the days leading up to the national lockdown. 

There are concerns about people who are drug dependent.

Shaun Shelly, manager of policy at the health NGO, TB/ HIV Care said they had spoken to people who are currently experiencing drug withdrawal symptoms in Strandfontein with little to no support. “There are a lot of people who have experienced withdrawal symptoms. It’s really uncomfortable. They want to leave, but the messages have been mixed whether they can or can’t leave. But the reality is that they can’t. We’re currently providing some symptomatic medication and hopefully, we’ll be able to provide some methadone to them soon.”Shelly said if people aren’t offered drug substitution therapy during the lockdown, they stand a far greater chance of overdosing when the lockdown ends when they go back to injecting substances. 

“When they leave there, they’ll be at risk of an overdose because they’ve lost their tolerance for opioids. Because our borders are much tighter at the moment we are liable to see a chance in the (drug) product that is out there.”

Said Shelly, “I don’t think Strandfontein is suitable. It’s easy to say so in hindsight… Since they are compensating hotels why aren’t they putting people up there? You can keep the hotels operating and staff working, and I know people will ask if we want homeless people staying in hotels, well the answer quite frankly is yes.”

A young man, wanting only to be identified as Angelo, left the site after asking to be voluntarily admitted to hospital for psychiatric evaluation. He told medical staff that he was having suicidal ideation and hallucination brought on by his heroin withdrawals. 

He was taken to Cape Town’s Victoria hospital where he believed he could be kept under observation and receive treatment for his withdrawal symptoms. “I thought it was going to be a help for us on the streets. But it didn’t turn out to be a place where we were going to to get the help that we needed. I’m a heroin addict, and I needed help to deal with my withdrawals. I needed sleeping tablets, something for nausea, and something for diarrhoea.”

Angelo was discharged immediately. 

He said conditions in the camp are not conducive to help his body wean itself off the drugs. 

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful. But they only served two things on the menu. They either served, take it, or leave it. It was just samp and lentils. It wasn’t something I could look forward to. And especially with my withdrawals, I couldn’t stomach it easily.”

Angelo is now back on the streets; he would rather take his chances here. 

The Democratic Alliance-run City has come under fire with questions being asked why it could not house homeless people in existing buildings the city already owns, like community halls. 

It responds that city-owned buildings have been identified as emergency venues for quarantine, isolation, and medical emergencies. 

“The fact is that these sites have already been identified for temporary hospitals, and isolation/quarantine facilities. These are necessary to ensure that we are prepared as the National Minister of Health, Dr Mkhize has warned, of the ‘calm before the devastating storm’. We will need these spaces as emergency hospital sites,” said Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato during a site visit to Strandfontein last week. 

“The City of Cape Town identified a range of possible sites, and the Strandfontein sports complex enabled us to move quickly as it has a large perimeter fence, existing infrastructure with water and electricity available, and is big enough to accommodate 2 000 homeless persons on one site, making the delivery of services for the homeless far more efficient,” he added. 

There have been calls by local opposition party’s to close down the facility. The African National Congress has even called for Mayor Dan Plato to resign. 

(David Harrison/M&G)

This was rejected by the mayor.

“I want to call on those political opportunists now, please stop politicising a very serious situation. We are doing whatever we can to ensure that our services continue, that we provide shelter for those who need it, and we are doing it with little to no warning ahead of time. Municipalities across the country are in the same boat, and we are all doing our best to make this work,” Plato said

The city has received some sympathy though. 

The South African Human rights commission’s office in the Western Cape said it was busy compiling a report on conditions at the temporary shelter site. Provincial Commissioner Chris Nissen said the Covid-19 crisis has brought on unique, and unprecedented challenges to governments, with hiccups and mistakes bound to happen. 

He said during the National State of Disaster certain individual rights have been waived to look after the health of the broader community. 

“We must do whatever we can whenever we can to ensure that we find a sustainable solution for homeless people, particularly in the western cape and cape town. But we do understand that Covid-19 brings us a number of challenges. It may not be a desirable venue, but clearly, no venue will be desirable. Wherever you take people there will be communities who will be upset. These are not ordinary circumstances. We are presented with many challenges,” Nissen said. 

Nissen said he hopes that the Covid-19 crisis changes the way governments and communities see and treat marginalised communities like homeless people. “We have to ask what is the sustainable solution for homeless people. We don’t have a national policy on how to deal with homeless people. After this is all over it is an ideal opportunity for reintegration. So if you have people who want to go back to their homes, how do we do that?”