Boston’s ‘bergie’ blues

Lauren O’Connor-May

Bellville seems no closer to finding a solution for its homeless after police told a group of about 60 street people, who had been sleeping outside the police station on Voortrekker Road, in recent months, to clear out.

The decision to jettison the homeless on Saturday night February 13 signalled the end to a plan to put them up temporarily until a more permanent solution could be found. It also sparked fears among residents and neighbourhood watch members that criminals among the homeless would move back into Boston and drive up crime.

The Bellville Neighbourhood Watch (BNW) posted an alert on its WhatsApp group the following morning, saying it had had to muster volunteers to deal with a “very serious problem”.

“At about 8pm SAPS, under instruction from higher command, chased all vagrants, street people and bergies away from SAPS, where they have been sleeping for the past couple of months, more than 60 per night… The only place they wanted to go,” the message said, referring to the dispersing homeless, “was back into Boston.”

The message added: “A total of 18 BNW volunteers responded from all zones in Boston and patrolled till early this morning, 3am, to keep them out of Boston.

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“This week is going to be a tough week for BNW volunteers.”

Stephan Fourie, the chairman of the Boston Spirit organisation, which encompasses the neighbourhood watch, believes the incident put a huge dent in crime-prevention efforts, but police disagree.

Bellville station commander Brigadier André van Dyk confirmed crime had dropped in Boston but said it hadn’t gone up again since the homeless had returned to the area.

“Police deploy there every day,” he said.

For a year and a half, Boston Spirit, Mould Empower Serve (MES), the Voortrekker Road Corridor Improvement District (VRCID) and the City of Cape Town have been working with homeless in the area.

“We profiled homeless in the area and discovered three groups: the completely destitute, who had nowhere else to go; people who had homes and families but chose to live on the streets; and those who committed crimes, including theft and drug peddling,” said Mr Fourie.

“Criminals intimidate and hide among them, thus effectively moving freely in the suburb, which in turn polarises the residents against anyone on the street regardless whether they are homeless, vagrants or street people, the latter being mostly crime orientated.

“Of this group, anyone who was not gainfully employed in or legally residing in the area were asked to leave after nightfall, as those not asleep by 10pm clearly were up to no good.”

Mr Fourie said those numbering among the truly destitute were profiled by MES and the VRCID and some were taken into a rehabilitation programme.

“For the rest, we asked the police if they could live on the station’s premises pending us working towards securing a safe area where they could sleep peacefully, not being robbed and assaulted by nefarious street people. At the time, police were happy that this work had been done because crime in the area dropped by 75 percent. The group of 12 then moved onto the police station’s premises, where they caused little trouble.”

According to Mr Fourie, the number grew steadily as more and more street people joined the group.

“Eventually the situation became out of hand with criminal activities and fights taking place within the group, and police were forced to terminate this arrangement and move them out. This did cause a fall-out as some simply melted back into the suburb.”

Some residents do not believe that the homeless are a driving factor behind crime in the area.

Resident Cobus Grobler said homeless sometimes trespassed in residents’ carports in wet weather but were, for the most part, peaceful. He said he was concerned that there was a “fixation” among some organisations in the area on keeping people out.

“The real problem is not the homeless but the criminal element,” he said.

Charles Tertiens, an actor and entertainer who has lived in Boston for 25 years, said he has been a victim of petty theft which he suspects was committed by “drug-using vagrants”.

“I have had a man wedge open my electric gate and start ripping the copper pipes from my wall; before I had a garage, tik users would steal the light bulbs of my vehicles; my dog’s stainless steel bowls have found a new home and I’m regularly cleaning human faeces up opposite my house,” he said.

“The topic of vagrants is a difficult one. No one wants them around and they have nowhere to go.”

Derek Bock, of the VRCID, said shelters in the city were too full.

“The homeless use public areas as toilets which the VRCID clean up afterwards,” he said.

Suzette Little, mayoral committee member for social development and early childhood development, said issues facing street people were complex.

“Bellville is considered as one of the City’s hot spots and we have a dedicated team that does targeted interventions in collaboration with various non-government organisations (NGOs) and shelters in that area.”

Ricardo Leendertz, a former gangster, was among the group told to leave the police station.

He grew up in Elsies River, was homeless for many years but now lives in a small shack in a resident’s yard in Boston Street.

He says the homeless in the area are shunted from pillar to post .

“We need solutions,” he said, adding that many of the homeless had criminal records, which branded them for life.

Joslyn Booysen, who has been living on the streets for 20 years, agrees.

“Yes, I have a criminal record,” she says.

“I sold my body but I haven’t done that for more than a year because I want to better myself. But people use your past to mark you for life. All I want is a second chance. As soon as people find out that I have a criminal record, they don’t want to give me work. All I want is a safe place to stay and work.”

Johan Bruinders, lives on the streets with his intellectually disabled son. He feels the homeless are treated inhumanely.

“We are treated like dogs and cats,” he said.