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Reality check: I wasn’t born caring about the homeless

Believe it or not: I was one of those people who turned to look away when a beggar came to my window. I really was. Sometimes, I still am. Especially now that many of them are known and familiar and I can smell the nonsense they’re about to spew in my direction before I roll my window down.

“Why didn’t you come for the meal yesterday, after I told you I would have one for you?”

“I came, Aunty, and it was closed.”

I call BS.

“Why do you sleep here? It’s not safe, why can’t you go home?”

“My family is all dead.”

All BS.

“Did you steal our hair clipper yesterday? The one we used to cut your hair?” (It went missing three seconds after we were done…)

“No, Aunty, I saw Sanele taking it and putting it in his bag.” (Sanele was not even there.)

I call BS.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that our street community are massively manipulative and known to be dishonest, a little bit criminal and to take any chance they can. It's the nature of the beast – or beasts – as these guys are fighting demons you and I can hardly even begin to understand. Here are but a few I’ve learnt of:

Firstly, stating the obvious. They have nowhere to sleep. If you’re reading this from outside of Pietermaritzburg, you might be lucky enough to live in a city that has a homeless shelter. Our city has a freaking expensive soccer team, wonderful new municipal vehicles for the ruling party, but no shelter. Not one municipally funded bed for the poor blighters sleeping on our streets at night.

Secondly. Again, stating the obvious. They are dirt poor. I mean, so poor we can’t even begin to understand that poverty. How poor would you need to be to dig in a rubbish bin and eat someone else’s day-old trash? I throw food away when it is off. Not nearly off. Bread when it is rock hard. Not vaguely stale. Fruit when it is fungus riddled. Veggies when they are squishy. That is the food they are eating from my dustbin. I have never been that poor nor that hungry. Nor as shameless. I mean, how tragic is that concept? Takes “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…” to a whole new meaning.

Thirdly. And this is not so obvious but one we try to forget. A homeless person, despite what we tell ourselves, has never chosen to be homeless. They chose to escape home. They chose to move to the city. They chose to try find a better life away from the life they had. They didn’t expect to stay there. They didn’t want to stay there. And even those who resolutely won’t accept assistance and don’t seem to want to be elsewhere, they really don’t want that life. They would rather die. Home must have been a) worse than street life, b) unable to support another mouth to feed, c) an impossible situation for sustainability or d) gone (i.e. parents were deceased, they were “without a place to live” for reasons beyond their control…) and so the streets were the next place. Come on a street with us any given Monday evening and hear the stories. “I would rather be dead, Aunty.” “I just want to get away from here, Aunty.” “I just want to die.”

Fourth on my list, perhaps not such a comfortable one, is that at least 40% of these kids came through the child care system. They “aged out” or ran away, but genuinely have no family of which to speak. They are the children of the raging HIV/AIDS pandemic that swept through our city in the 90s and early 2000s. They have nowhere to go. Poverty, unemployment, lack of education opportunities… they are literally tossed from the child care centres and left to fend for themselves. They become our problem. Within a few months on the streets, they’ve had the ID books stolen. Their Birth Certificates stolen. They are then officially, Nobody and No one. Nameless Noodles on the streets of Msunduzi. No home. No name. No birthday. No address. So when you treat them like a nobody, you’re only affirming what they are already starting to believe about themselves. A recent study in the UK said that the number one overwhelming feeling of the homeless on the streets of London (yes, they have them there too!) was that they were invisible. The expression “Sawubona” means – I SEE YOU. In a city predominantly inhabited by isiZulu speaking people, its tragically sad that there are over 2000 individual citizens completely invisible to the rest of us.

Finally, number five. Our clients – driven by trauma, poverty, boredom, a lack of self-worth, the need to supress the cold and hunger – are addicts.  And if you think the lack of beds is a mess up, can you imagine what the lack of rehab is. How do we take a person, who doesn’t care about his life at all, tell him that God loves him and that he has a purpose and a place on this planet – just like the rest of us – when we can’t offer him a hospital for his disease (addiction) or a roof to sleep under? These are basic human needs – according to Maslow and the Bible – the swallows have a nest – the bees have a hive – but humans living in Pietermaritzburg have cold pavement and an awning. Where, when they sleep, they stand a chance of being harassed by vigilantes who want them gone, or a municipal police force who wants them gone. Once, taking away beautiful sleeping bags and burning them less than two hours after we had distributed them. Once, beating them and sodomising them with batons. Yeah. That will chase them back home. That will get them off drugs.

I needed to rant a bit tonight. Winter is coming. I wanted to share some of the realities our clients face. My friends face. The same friends who came to our resource centre over 12’000 times last year, purely for human connection. The same friends who dance when they find a pair of shoes that fits them in our clothing store. That clap their hands in delight when we handed out Easter eggs last week. That weep with relief when the nurse can help them with a seeping wound that has been bothering them for weeks.

Once upon a time (recently,) I also didn’t care. I also looked away. I’m not special or especially compassionate or especially kind. I’m not the only one called to care. The penny only dropped for me when I realised that I am not so bloody special – it’s luck of the draw. Life happens to us all, and certainly in our early years, we have very little say in how it all pans out. How can we be so entitled that we feel our worth is higher than these guys? Do we honestly believe that God had a better destiny planned for us, for our kids, than He does for them? I know that the Bible says the poor will always be with us, but poverty is only one out the five of their ailments, their demons. They are broken and need restoration. They are sick and need healing. They are orphans and need family. They are lost and need to be found. It’s not a homeless thing. It’s a human thing.

Every person I know is fighting some or other battle right now. We’re all in the same global recession together. We’re all reeling from a COVID, Looting , Flooding reality. Kwa-silience (Resilience especially for living in Kwa-Zulu Natal,) is a real thing. But our spirit of uBuntu is a real-er thing. Our spirit of Sawubona is engrained in our soils and blood. The most beautiful thing that came out of the last four years in our troubled city, our troubled province, our troubled country, has been the humanity. Yet in this area, I’ve only noticed a hardening of hearts, a closing of wallets, a building of walls. And our client number has only grown.

If you don’t want to roll your window down, cool. Donate R10 via Zapper. If you don’t want to talk to them, cool. Wave a voucher at them and they will tell you very quickly if they want to come to the Life Boat or not. If you want to do it from the safety of your own home – send us a Checkers delivery, or do an EFT. Or continue to look the other way when they approach. Continue to think of them as parasites and vagrants. Continue to make them feel invisible. But I can’t. Some of the souls (and I will write about a few of them as the weeks come up…) are the some of the bravest, most beautiful souls I have ever met.  I may not be able to build them a home or pay for their rehab or even give them a job… but I can be a friend, I can show them some human kindness and I can point them to the path that will lead them out of this.  And all of that costs absolutely nothing.

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