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A lifeline for the homeless people in eThekwini

As South Africa moves to level three of the Covid-19 lockdown, the eThekwini municipality is preparing to close down most of the camps for the homeless people it has been running and consolidate their remaining 1 800 residents into three permanent sites.

With the lessening of restrictions on personal movement, the residents of the camps will be allowed to leave during the day and return at night to the three safe sites, where they will continue to sleep.

The city is also setting up a harm-reduction centre to provide medical treatment and support services for recovering drug addicts, including those who have undergone methadone therapy at one of the camps, in the underground parking lot of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Since the lockdown was implemented on March 26, the City and a number of nongovernmental organisations and faith-based bodies have housed, fed and looked after nearly 2 400 homeless people. 

About 260 people with severe addiction issues were housed at the Moses Mabhida site, where they have been receiving treatment in addition to being housed and fed.

eThekwini deputy mayor Belinda Scott said the City intended to consolidate its 11 existing shelters and move the remaining 1 800 residents to three large sites at north beach and Block AK. 

Scott said the three camps would remain as a permanent safe space where homeless people could keep their mattresses and blankets and make use of ablution facilities. Residents would be free to leave during the day and would be screened and follow sanitisation procedures when they returned in the evening.

Scott said about 600 people had already left the camps. Some had gone back to their families, while others had returned to their life on the streets. “We have a Covid-free community here, which we have kept safe since March 27. With the lifting of restrictions, we cannot keep people locked down against their will, so that community will be going out into the streets every day,” she said.

Scott said the camp residents would all be allowed to stay where they are for now, with the consolidation taking place over the next two or three weeks. “The numbers are dropping. Some have jobs they can go back to, but the big concern is that people have nowhere to sleep at night. The big sites will remain open and will continue to provide people with the amenities they have been receiving,” she said.

The City would continue to run the safe spaces for homeless people in a post-Covid environment.

“We had been planning to create permanent safe spaces, but were delayed by having to follow a lengthy process. Covid has allowed us to get things done more quickly. We want to move into a post-Covid situation where we maintain these safe open spaces for the homeless,” Scott said. 

Monique Marks, who runs the methadone programme, said there had been a slow exit of people over the past few weeks, with about 50 people now remaining in the on-site programme. Of these, 18 would move to a rehabilitation centre in Newlands Park, in the north of the city, from next week when the facility reopens. A second intake of 18 people would move to Newlands the following week for a five-week, in-house treatment programme.

Marks said most of those who remain in the camp are part of the 80 who had joined the methadone programme, which helped them to deal with heroin withdrawal. The residents also receive counselling and occupational therapy.

“Our people have been out of the drug market for nine weeks. The rehabilitation centre will give them the time and space they need while working out what next to do with their lives,” she said.

Ayanda Ndwandwe (31) from Lindelani in north Durban, who has been using heroin for about seven years, has been at the Moses Mabhida centre since March 27.

“I had nowhere else to go. I was living on the street or in shelters if I had money. I came here because the shelters were closed and there was no way I could get money to smoke,” Ndwandwe said.

He said he had tried to kick the heroin habit several times in the past. He failed, but is preparing to move into the rehabilitation centre as part of the first intake.

“The programme here is helping us. I’ve tried so many times to stop before and failed. The methadone is taking away the sickness, so right now I’m not thinking of drugs.  

“This time I hope that I can continue to stay sober. That’s why I’ve decided to go to Newlands,’’ Ndwandwe said. “For some people, this is just a parking lot. For me, it is a second chance.”

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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