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Look at me, please. I’m homeless not invisible

Jean Amegble, a Togolese Jesuit and intern at The Jesuit Institute South Africa, has been struck by the problem of homelessness on the streets of Johannesburg. He contests that the key to solving homelessness lies not in the building of shelters and addressing material needs. He says that we confront the issue by making provision for dialogue and offering safe spaces for listening to those on the streets, this will begin to chip at the social invisibility factor that they too readily feel.

Stories have an impact in and on the lives of those who hear and tell them. This is the story of *Siyabonga, a 30-year-old man from the Western Cape who ended up on the streets of Johannesburg. He graduated with a sociology degree three years ago, but could not find a job. To make matters worse, his merchant father fell into bankruptcy losing everything. Siyabonga, looking to secure the livelihood of his family, left the Cape in the firm hope that he would find a job in Jozi but quickly found himself on the cold shoulder of the city’s streets.

Daily, he spends his time and energy begging for food and the basics, even if few heed his call for help. He did not choose to be on the streets, he was forced there by the nature of circumstances. Who should he blame?

While Siyabonga’s journey from the Western Cape to Egoli is unlike the journey of the prodigal son, who begging his inheritance from his father and leaving for a remote country squandered all that he had been given (Luke 15:11-32), they do have one thing in common. They were both involved in a desperate search for work, regardless of how menial and humiliating it may have been or may have seemed to others; even if just to feed the pigs and, in recompense, eat the pods that they were fed.  But nobody would employ them.

Siyabonga is ignored by the politicians and administrators of the city. Homeless people are invisible to our society. This has been Siyabonga’s fate, invisible to those who walk past him without even a nod, too busy and preoccupied with their own well-being. To the majority of passersby, Siyabonga and those with him on the streets, smell, their clothes are old and soiled with dirt and they hardly shower.

I witnessed the tragedy of Siyabonga and felt, somewhat hopelessly, sorry for my newfound friend. He could not afford a shelter because he would rather use the money that he managed to collect to buy one cigarette – to remove the feeling of cold and hunger. He found peace and comfort in smoking three cigarettes a day, regardless of how we might judge him for making what we believe to be a poor choice.

Despite, the efforts of the government to provide shelters, the cost of these is still too high.  As a result, too many people still sleep in the cold and the shelters available to them remain under-utilized.

The problem of social invisibility

Social invisibility is a factor for the many minority groups in our societies today. Most people ignore the homeless because they feel it is the responsibility of the government to cater for them and to enact a programme of social justice. Others feel that there is little to be gained by caring for the homeless people that surround us.

There are good Samaritans in our societies, especially among Churches and NGOs where food, blankets and other basic material necessities are handed out to homeless people. These actions are really good but they only tackle the external challenges of a homeless person’s daily existence. For me, the root cause resides in the invisibility factor. Many people are afraid of the homeless and daren’t even look at them or smile from a distance, while ignorant others might see the homeless condition as a punishment for those who did bad things. The homeless, despite their greatest efforts, can do nothing to change this fearful image. They can only hope that society would look at their situation differently and give them an opportunity to thrive.

Ironically, the actions described by the derogatory labels ascribed to them, that stop them having a fighting chance for change and to find a life beyond the streets, become their modus operandi in the struggle for survival and many end-up as robbers, drug-addicts, alcoholics and even murderers.

For me, the question of who is responsible for homelessness is irrelevant because I know how inter and multi-layered the problem is.

The words of Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher stay with me: the face of the Other challenges me (Totality and Infinity, 1961). When we recognise the other before us and experience them as such, we recognise that we all share a part of responsibility. In this case, it is the responsibility of not recognising the homeless person as a human being with dignity, with a name, a story, a family and a history – like all of us.

Another homeless man, helped me to understand that in his 20 years of homelessness his greatest need was not for food nor material provisions but to be given the opportunity to acquire basic skills so that he could compete in and enter the job market so as to contribute to society.

I believe that this is not too much to ask for from society – from us. Like us, the homeless have a right to independence, and a strong need to exercise the decisions that contribute to their future. They feel the acute shame of depending on do-good organisations, week after week, that gather them together at a fixed time and place to receive their lot. As a result, many become depressed and lose all motivation, becoming lazy and unwilling to make the efforts that are needed to change their situation. Their prejudiced reality leads to severe deteriorations in mental health and forms part of the complex web of dependency, violence and abuse common to homelessness.

Shelters of dialogue and listening

The real shelters that homeless people need are shelters which take them out of their social invisibility. These are not shelters made of bricks and cement. Rather, they are built on love, understanding and recognition. It may not be within the realm of responsibility or the capacity of churches to build concrete shelters; but it is certainly within our means and, in fact, our mandate to build human shelters. The love of neighbour is the greatest commandment.

We must do everything to provide spaces for dialogue and listening. This is a particular need for homeless communities. They have a strong need to talk, to share their anger, their feelings of incapacity and weakness, to talk of the social prejudices they experience at our hands. Their hearts are full of questions and worries that they need to share in order to be at peace. The most important thing that we can do to provide such human shelters is to give the free gift of our time, an attentive ear and an open heart and not to seek to give answers or to solve their problems but to listen without judgment or hidden agendas.

These listening spaces could be one-on-one or in groups but they must be utterly confidential, safe spaces where people can grow in deep trust with one another. There is a dire need for information that can give them hope for their own emancipation and freedom.

I am convinced that an attentive listening can begin to heal their buried wounds, that are festering below the surface, to pave the way for further reflection and possibly even to finding solutions to their daily challenges. I am convinced of the transformative possibilities awaiting those who are given such opportunities.

*Not his real name.

Images: Still taken from “Homeless on the Streets of Jozi” a documentary on homelessness in Johannesburg.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.