“It was so painful to lose him but there was a pain inside of him that I didn’t know about. If only I knew, I could’ve done something to save him…”
These were the words of supervisor at the Streetscape Gardens, Zoliswa Mbana about Lee Stemmett, who died at Somerset Hospital last week. Lee, 27, worked with Ms Mbana at the Streetscape Gardens near Fruit and Veg City in Cape Town, where they held a memorial service for him on Monday February 4, to give his friends and family on the streets a chance to say goodbye.
Lee was reunited with his family two years ago after being separated from them for 10 years (“Homeless man’s story of hope”, Plainsman, May 17 2017).
A 14-year-old Lee ran away from his Beaufort West home, and his family in Portland, Mitchell’s Plain, assumed he was okay as he often travelled between the two areas on weekends and school holidays.
However, when his mother died a few years later, his aunt, Megan Petersen, decided to check on her nephew, but she could not reach him.
His paternal family had been searching for him for years. They reported him missing at Mitchell’s Plain SAPS, and even put up pictures of him.
Meanwhile, Lee had taken a train to the city centre, where he would live for years to come. His family eventually found him through social media.
Soon after, he was reunited with his family and lived with them in Portland. Ms Petersen said when Lee came home in 2017, he spent the year there, and the next year, he was back on the streets. “The travelling to work was difficult, so he stayed in town, but I was under the impression that he lived in a shelter, as I got updates from a man I thought he lived with – we called him Pa.”
However, in the months leading up to his death, Ms Mbana said Lee was not working at the garden regularly due to injuries he sustained in a car accident. “The car accident happened in 2016. Lee was crossing the road near the Service Dining Rooms and a car hit him. He complained about headaches a lot and said when the accident happened, his head was affected. He was too stubborn to see a doctor.”
She said last year in September, Lee left his Portland home to stay at the Carpenter Shop in Roeland Street during their Winter Readiness Programme. After the programme ended, Lee was back on the streets of the city.
“He said travelling from Mitchell’s Plain to work was difficult for him. I said he could go to the Safe Space (near Culemborg bridge), but he refused.
“He said he was being bullied there and there was no protection for him.”
Ms Mbana said they had identified a space in Kraaifontein where they take homeless people for rehabilitation, and Lee said he would go there. He then changed his mind and said he would go back to his aunt.
“The day we had to take him to his aunt, he didn’t show up. I went to look for him and found him in Hope Street. He told me he didn’t want his family to see him in the bad state he was in.” She said in December, a month before he died, he didn’t come to work, and again she went to look for him.
“I found him in Hope street again. He was not my Lee – he was dirty and skinny. He told me it was difficult for him to live on the street.”
Throughout this time, Lee complained about headaches and aches in his feet, and told Ms Mbana it was because of the accident. “I told him that he needs to see a doctor, but that’s what he was running away from – every time I wanted to take him to the doctor, he would disappear.”
She said about two weeks ago, Lee came back, worked for three days at the garden and then disappeared again. “Someone came running to the garden asking for help because Lee was foaming at the mouth and his face was askew.” His ex-girlfriend, who only wanted to be identified as Nazeema, accompanied him to Somerset Hospital, where she said Lee just wanted to sleep.
“We took him outside in the wheelchair and he fell on the grass. We called for help and the doctors took him in,” said an emotional Nazeema.
About 20 minutes later, they received the news that Lee had died. Ms Petersen said Lee called her often as they were very close, but she didn’t know he was sick. “I got a call informing me that Lee had died in hospital. The doctors were unable to determine why he died, so they are busy with the autopsy and they will have more information for us at a later stage.”
She said while she wished Lee had stayed at home, she knew that when someone was from the street, that was all they knew. “It’s difficult for them to adjust to a different environment. I couldn’t force him to stay.”
However, she said all the while, he never changed. “He was still the humble, jolly person I knew. Although I was his aunt, we were close because I’m not much older than him, so we shared a lot. There was never a dull moment. He was a very loveable person.”
She said the memorial at the Streetscape Garden was testament to Lee’s nature. “It was beautiful. There you could see that everyone loved him. We as the family appreciate it a lot.” She said she would miss him terribly as she felt like she had lost her baby brother.
Ms Mbana said she would never find another person like Lee. “I called him my son. He was so helpful and humble and quiet.”
She said he loved music and dancing. “He would come here with his phone or a speaker and ask me to dance with him and made fun of me. He always wanted to laugh and spread joy.”
Nazeema added: “He is in a good place now. There will be no more suffering for him.”
Ms Petersen said the funeral would be held on Saturday February 16 at the family home in Portland. Because Lee did not have a funeral plan, they were doing the best they could to give him a dignified send-off.
If you would like to help, or to get more information about the funeral, you can call Ms Petersen on 076 941 2768.