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Homelessness and COVID-19: the miracle of Tshwane

The media reporting of hastily-cobbled plans to provide shelters for South Africa’s homeless people mostly focused on the failings of the initiatives. Stephan de Beer shares the miracle of what happened in Tshwane when government and civil society came together to provide a solution for the homeless. Many challenges remain, but the cooperation and good will that has been created may become the foundation for a far more feasible program to assist homeless people.

The Japanese symbol for crisis famously represents both threat and opportunity. The enormity of our interconnected vulnerability and possibility to infect each other with COVID-19 – the resultant anxiety; the possible loss of life for thousands; and the likelihood of economic disaster for many small businesses, individuals and sectors – are all presenting threats too ghastly to contemplate.

The most vulnerable is the global homeless population. Different cities and towns seek to respond to homelessness in different ways. Never before has homelessness been so visible. When cities empty out, the homeless remain. Some cities responded through mass round-ups, putting homeless people at huge risk by concentrating them in small spaces together, completely contradicting the intention of lockdown, physical distancing and self-isolation.

Housing 1 000 people in one week

In the City of Tshwane the lockdown did not start on a good note for homeless persons and those seeking to serve them well. A stadium was opened up without the city and the homeless sector being ready, and the South African Police Services and Metro Police literally dropped people off every hour, until almost 2 000 people were concentrated in one small space.

This prompted the City of Tshwane – through its Department of Community and Social Development, as well as the Tshwane Homelessness Forum consisting of various NGOs, homeless and former homeless persons, researchers, and city officials – to forge a collaborative approach to reduce risk for homeless persons, while supporting them to find ways for improved physical distancing and self-isolation.

This prompted the City of Tshwane to forge a collaborative approach to reduce risk for homeless persons.

This was by no means easy. Institutions, departments and individuals, usually comfortable working in silos and from their offices, were now forced to learn how to collaborate. It is a challenge every day, as power politics, institutional agendas, personal misunderstandings, and limited access to resources, require robust and honest engagement, daily recommitment to partnership, and shrewd innovation, to stay together.

Slowly, however, we have reason to celebrate as well. If forces of good collaborate, constantly subverting factors that want to derail the sudden central place given to homeless persons, cracks show and the light shines through.

As a result of this collaboration, a number of temporary sites were opened up to provide shelter for homeless persons.

The Caledonian Stadium became the de facto screening and intake centre from where people were decanted to various shelters across the city. A small group of health workers work around the clock to do health screenings and social assessments, supporting allocation of people to other shelters.

Only 300 people are to remain behind in tented accommodation at the Caledonian Stadium, set up to served 300 homeless persons who are substance users, supported by the Community-Orientated Substance Use Programme (COSUP) of the University of Pretoria. A second shelter for 200 persons abusing substances was identified, to ease the pressure on the Caledonian Stadium, but not yet set up.

These two sites are referred to now as “mass rehabilitation” sites, and the hope and prayer are they will mediate new beginnings for many.

A second site, managed by the city, was created in Pretoria West at the Lukas van den Berg Sport Grounds, accommodating 300 people in tents of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

In Centurion, the Lyttleton Town Hall was opened to house 50 people, run by the local community, with support from Churches, the business chamber and others.

Three Churches opened up 20-bed shelters.  At the Arcadia Faith Community of the Dutch Reformed Church 20 older homeless persons were received. In the hall of the Melodi ya Tshwane Uniting Reformed Church/Pretoria, the Sediba Hope Health Project is running a 20-bed shelter for homeless women.  In a gated community in the East of Pretoria, the Oosterlig Dutch Reformed Church opened a 20-bed shelter for older homeless men.

A very encouraging development was when a Home Owners Association in Capital Park offered to run a shelter in a public park in their neighbourhood. Set up for 50 homeless persons, this venue supports 25 older homeless persons and 25 other members of the homeless community.

The Gilead Health Community of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation is opening a 39-bed facility providing permanent accommodation to older homeless persons with special needs, and will receive persons sent from the different temporary sites.

Reasons to celebrate

Reflecting on the above, we are filled with gratitude and celebration.

Never before has a collaborative effort in Tshwane housed almost 1 000 homeless persons in one week. We had a dream of securing 100 new bed spaces for older homeless persons in the city before the end of 2020. Look at what we achieved instead!

People and organisations learnt to work with each other, rekindle old relationships, and those who never worked together before, discovered one another.

READ— Homelessness and COVID-19: Political, institutional and theological capacities and priorities, 15 April 2020 // spotlight.africa

Never before has a Church in a gated community opened up shelter space for homeless persons. Never before did a Home Owners Association take the lead in housing homeless persons (such associations usually displace homeless persons).

Some homeless persons were extremely ill – unrelated to Covid-19 – upon arrival at temporary shelters, and because of the expensive health screening could immediately access proper care and hospitalisation.

This could be an opportunity for new life and an affirmation of dignity for hundreds of homeless persons.

Those having to scavenge for food daily, now receive two or three healthy meals a day, in caring environments.

Post COVID-19 challenges

The above is to be celebrated. There are still many loose threads and many concerns. Ours is to remain fervently in hope, while pitching small tents – here, there and everywhere.

How do we make sure that older homeless persons and women do not have to return to the streets after lockdown, except by choice?

How do we leverage home owners associations and churches in wealthier suburbs to continue opening their hearts and spaces for vulnerable people?

How do we make sure that the new infrastructure and relationships that have unfolded now, can be sustained beyond Covid-19?

How do we secure vacant public, church or other buildings for social, housing and health infrastructure – now that everyone scrambles – in order for such infrastructure to mediate sustainable pathways out of homelessness, hereafter?

The crisis of Covid-19 is a threat to some. It could be an opportunity for new life, an affirmation of dignity, and a new chapter in rolling out life-affirming and high-quality services, for hundreds of homeless persons. Covid-19 made homelessness visible.

* 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.

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Stephan de Beer
Stephan de Beer is an urban theologian focusing on issues of faith in the city, and, more specifically, concerns himself with homelessness, housing and spatial justice. He directs the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria and is Associate Professor in Practical Theology at the University of Pretoria. Before joining the University, he worked in an ecumenical faith-based organisation in the inner city of Pretoria, creating social and housing infrastructure in response to, and in partnership with, some of the city's most vulnerable communities (for other publications, see ccmresearch.org.za).

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