Choosing a life on the street

LAUREN O’CONNOR-MAY

Deirdre Swartz and Charlene Evertz sleep with a group of people under the footbridge at Lentegeur station. The group have been a thorn in the side of ward councillor Gouwa Timm.

Every week they are “evicted” from their makeshift shelters, only to return again. Ms Swartz has been living on the streets for 18 months. She has a three-year-old daughter who spends the day with her but returns to her grandparents at night.

Ms Swartz says she would rather sleep on the streets because she does not want to live with her daughter’s paternal grandparents. During the day she makes money by collecting and selling recyclables.

Ms Evertz has been living on the streets for several years. She said every Wednesday law enforcement comes to kick them out from under the bridge and break down their structures.

According to the City, this weekly interaction between street people and law enforcement is not unique.

Suzette Little, mayoral committee member for social development and early childhood development, said: “The City’s law enforcement section, together with the social development department, conducts regular interventions with a view to reintegrating street people with their families. However, many of them refuse the assistance offered by the City. When complaints are received, these units conduct operations and the street people, along with their structures, are removed from these public areas.”

“However, addressing this issue in the long-term remains a challenge as law enforcement agencies have found that when they leave, the street people sometimes return to the area. This is why the City’s enforcement actions are complemented by a social development aspect, seeking to assist street people in the long-term.”

According to Ms Timm, the sub-council had received several complaints about the group, including that they were using drug lollies in full view of the public and defecating and urinating near pedestrian areas. There had also been complaints of public nudity, public drinking, verbal abuse, continuous harassment of shoppers, public intercourse and general dumping and untidiness.

Raphael Martin, speaking on behalf of Ms Timm’s office, said the sub-council had notified the land invasion unit.

“They (law enforcement) act weekly by removing these makeshift structures – but once they confiscate, these elements obtain ‘new material’ to erect other structures. I have tasked social development to do an intervention, but those vagrants have either refused to be relocated, reintegrated and placed in places of safety, as they are afraid of not having access to drugs and liquor. So we are faced with the reality that there is a bigger problem created by the continuous use of narcotics and substance abuse.”

Constance Higgins, 66, of Strandfontein, has been working with street people for 21 years. She said among street people there are two groups – those who want to be helped and those who don’t.

For those who don’t want to be helped: “I don’t think there is a solution,” she said.

Ms Higgins used to run a night shelter from a house in Tafelsig called Mission Care Centre. She has since sold the house and no longer accommodates street people over-night but provides meals on a daily basis instead.

“They steal your geyser, they steal your taps. You come the next day and ask ‘where’s the micro-wave?’. And they say, ‘Ek wietie Antie (I don’t know, Aunty).’” she said.

“It’s up to the person themselves. We’ve tried numerous programmes, spent many hours working with the person, we don’t give up on them, we try everything and it even starts affecting our personal lives but it seems they rather want to be on the streets than being in any shelter or even their own homes.”

Ms Higgins said neither the cruel nor kind approach had worked when the person did not want help.

“Law enforcement has been kind and sometimes harsh but it doesn’t matter,” she said.

“I’ve sometimes treated them very firmly but my heart is aching because this is an adult – but it’s water off a duck’s back.”

Shuaib Hoosain had a more hopeful view. Mr Hoosain, of the Sultan Bahu drug rehabilitation centre, said street people who are admitted to the centre under duress do sometimes relapse but the centre does not view them as “repeat offenders”.

“Due to the inherent characteristics of illicit substances such as appetite suppression, the ability to block emotional recall and inducing a state of euphoria, it is true that many homeless people would opt to engage in substance use in order to cope with life on the streets. The pertinent issue is to understand why they persist to use and if the sociological issues are not addressed, they would most likely continue to engage in substance use. We thus do not view them as repeat offenders, rather we attempt to employ empathy and use relapse as a positive constructive tool via the employment of cognitive behavioural therapy,” Mr Hoosain said.

“According to the World Health Organisation’s Principle of Effective Treatment; those who are forced in treatment via familial pressure, the judicial system or even social/economic need, do just as well as those who enter treatment voluntarily. This is evidenced at the Sultan Bahu Centre by the referrals made to us by the district public prosecutor, whom recognises the significance of diversion and the interrelated treatment needs of young first time offenders, she encounters in the judicial setting.

“These individuals may enter treatment with a wary and, at times, cynical mindset but nevertheless warm up to the treatment setting and do attain sobriety. In the case of a referral involving a displaced individual, an in-patient setting may be preferable, but with a three-month waiting list at such institutions, partnerships with shelters are absolutely imperative.”

So if there’s hope, what approach should families or civic authorities take with a person who has chosen life on the streets rather than sobriety?

“The best advice would be to clue themselves up on the dynamics of substance dependence. It may seem illogical and even insane to choose a life away from the comforts of a family home, but the nature of substance dependence is just that the user does not wish to be confronted about his or her substance use as this would contradict a deeply entrenched denial mechanism.

“As a result of this, they would at first sub-consciously alienate themselves from the family by excluding themselves from small familial activities such as sharing a meal. Later this may evolve to the exclusion of significant events such as Christmas or Eid and over time ensuing arguments may serve as the catalyst for them leaving home. By understanding the dynamics of substance use families can understand the effects substances has had on the optimal functioning of the family unit and what needs to be put in place to get their loved one in treatment; understand their role in the treatment programme as an important support structure; and how to cope with a newly-sober individual in the household.

“This can be done even if the dependent person is not yet ready to access treatment services and then serves to reinforce the coping strategies of effected families.”