Social distancing impossible

Squatters on Long Street in Scottsdene raised their concerns about cramped living conditions.

Families squatting on Long Street in Scottsdene say it’s impossible to practise social distancing in a crammed shack of 12 people, including the homeless flocking to them for shelter.

Following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Monday March 23, when he declared a 21-day national lockdown to slow down the Covid-19 virus infection rate, the homeless have rushed to the makeshift shacks on Long Street, fearing arrests for being on the streets during the lockdown period.

But squatters who have been there since March 2018 say their 3mx3m makeshift shacks are not big enough to accommodate the nine families and the homeless.

On March 28 2018 more than 100 families, who illegally occupied the Sunset Village flats on Long Street, were evicted by the private developer, Calgro M3 (“Illegal occupants evicted,” April 4, 2018).

Since then the families have refused to move from the pavement, claiming they have nowhere to go (“Squatters vow to stay put,” May 23, 2019).

While some have moved from the pavement, nine families who are still there with “nowhere to go,” are asking the City of Cape Town to move them into a safer space such as a church or community hall – for the duration of the lockdown period.

Cashwell Babers, 39, says the nine families squatting there are made up of eight to 12 members and find it hard to keep one metre in distance, practise personal hygiene and stay indoors. “We have no running water, no toilet and have to run to family and friends in the community for water – how do we stay indoors?”

He added that the squatters have asked Ward 7 councillor Grant Twigg for assistance but was turned away. “We have asked the City to help us with a mobile toilet and now during lockdown we are seeking a better place to live such as a community hall with toilets and where we can keep a safe distance between each other,” he said.

Mr Babers said they “do their business” in a bucket and flush it down the stormwater drains in the street.

“Our children don’t want to stay inside because our places are so small, it’s just meant for sleeping. So we let them play in the streets but we have explained what the virus is and we are trying our best not to get infected,” he said.

He added that his family has made their own hand sanitiser with methylated spirits, bleach and hand soap but they have a lack of masks.

Mr Babers said that he heard, by word of mouth, that “other communities were receiving water tankers during this period but Long Street has been forgotten,” he said.

“I know that we occupied this space illegally but we did it because we were desperate, we have nowhere to go and our children here are suffering,” said Mr Babers.

Ward 7 councillor Grant Twigg said finding shelter for the homeless is top priority during the lockdown period; however, the squatters “must go back to their families or where they stayed before.”

Mr Twigg said that law enforcement is aware of the squatters and will not remove them unless they are not abiding with the law and not staying inside. “During this time even if you have a hokkie or a palace – the same rules apply to everyone, we have to stay inside to fight this pandemic,” he said.

He added that he is working closely with City officials to seek accommodation for the homeless.”We are approaching religious leaders in our communities, we might use a church or a community hall,” he said.

Dr Zahid Badroodien, Mayco member for community services and health, said the City has started providing temporary shelters in other areas and will soon accommodate people in the northern suburbs.

“The search for temporary shelters is taking some time. Work is also under way at the Paint City Site in Bellville but the City will inform the homeless as soon as facilities become available,” he said.

Gerald Groenewald, a homeless man in Kraaifontein, said he moves around and doesn’t sleep on his “regular spot”, fearing that he will be arrested for being out on the streets. “I have tried going to the night shelter here but most of them are full of people already,” he said.

Mould Empower Serve (MES) is one of the charities helping the homeless in the area and has a night shelter in Durbanville. Their one-stop Centre of Hope provides holistic services to the homeless and street people communities in Brackenfell, Bellville, Parow and Durbanville.

Anelle Erasmus, from MES, says the Durbanville shelter has seen the homeless flock from various areas in the northern suburbs but can only accommodate 67 people.

In the wake of Covid-19, she says some rules have changed at the shelter such as not being able to leave during the 21-day lockdown period, compared to the homeless using the facility as “as sleeping place only.”

“We are now keeping the homeless at the shelter and they can only leave the premises for medical emergencies,” she says.

However, she says, there are more than 700 people being fed by MES staff and volunteers.

Most shelters, she said, can only help a certain amount of people during this time. “Our facilities are filled to capacity,” she says.

She added that MES is trying to help more homeless people but “are running out of resources.”

“We have to buy food, hand over hygiene kits and pay our volunteers,” she said.

If you would like to help, contact Ms Erasmus at 021 949 8736 or email anelle@mes.org.za