News and analysis of a world in peril
Locking down the homeless ... Where?
The lockdown has demonstrated itself to be unrealistic and impractical, exposing extreme economic inequalities, which make it impossible for us to be equal before the law
... writes Tred Magill Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Every morning before lockdown began, people would line the road past Brackenfell railway station, holding up a single finger to indicate their availability for work. They're still there, although not as many; whereas there were 30-50 every day, now there are never more than about eight.

"Hoekom staan julle hier. Jy weet mos jy moet by die huis bly?" I shout through my car window, as I ease past the stop sign at the intersection. "Ons is honger, ons moet eet", he shouted back. Obviously. Hunger is always going to trump any fear of being arrested and imprisoned; and in prison the State is (at least) obliged to feed you.

Thirty kilometres away in the CBD, the City of Cape Town continues to struggle with homelessness. A group of refugees living inside and on the pavement of the Methodist Church, were finally evicted just before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic; some to Bellville and the rest ... to another pavement, in Albertus Street. And there they were fined by the City's law-enforcement authorities for violating city council bylaws, which prohibit fires, sleeping overnight in public places, or hanging laundry in public view. What else were they supposed to do?

Yet just a few blocks away, in Hanover Street opposite the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), small groups of refugees continue living in makeshift shelters, since long before the lockdown. They haven't been provided with anything - no face-masks, hand-sanitiser, food or blankets - only told to keep a distance from others ... which of course is pretty much impossible; because as soon as I appear they're approaching me for a hand-out.

And at the traffic lights, just 100m away, a homeless woman approaches motorists to sell stickers, while a law-enforcement vehicle drives past her and does a u-turn.

Looking back towards the refugees, I see a SAPS van approach a small group under a tree near the Muir Street Mosque ... and drive away again. I turn around and drive up to the small group - they're not refugees, but say they 'escaped' from the Culemborg shelter by climbing the fence because the security there 'treated us like dogs'. Freedom on the streets is better than a blanket and a cup of soup.

In Chapel street under the N2 flyover, a number of homeless mingle with their neighbours, all living in makeshift shelters and in full view of law-enforcement authorities manning a road-block into the city centre, less than 100m away.

A few kilometres away, under a pedestrian bridge over the railway line between Woodstock and Salt River, it's business as usual, as the drug peddlers continue to ply their trade to the homeless addicts living in makeshift shelters alongside the railway line. Some weeks before lockdown, there was a CCID trailer-kiosk at the foot of the pedestrian bridge, but that has since disappeared.

So, where is law-enforcement during this terrible pandemic? And where is the housing, food and other basic services, the City was to provide?

Responding to these observations, the City’s Executive Director for Safety and Security, Richard Bosman claimed these "small groups are likely to be at no greater risk of contracting the virus at their current locations, as they are not in direct contact with others". He did not comment on the risk the homeless might pose to those they approach for hand-outs.

Bosman said the City's Law Enforcement had liaised with groups of street people during the lockdown and those that had agreed had been moved to temporary shelter facilities, while others had declined to be moved. He stressed the difficulty with enforcement saying that "where the City conducts operations in line with the by-laws, the individuals simply return to the sites as soon as officers leave".

Clearly, the city has given up on law-enforcement and the Methodist Church refugees only got that special attention because they were so much in public-view - now that they've been moved to Bellville Paint CIty and Wingfield, they're no longer of concern.

I guess the City is stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do you enforce regulations on people for whom it simply impossible to comply? And in what sense are we all 'equal before the law' - can I pitch my tent on some vacant District Six land, to enjoy the views of Table Bay, Table Mountain and Signal Hill? Sure, the law will be equally applied when they get me into Court, but clearly, the City is selective about who the law is enforced upon.

"It is a 'cruel and unusual punishment' to fine people living on the street when they have nowhere else to live", says Former DA City Councillor and now Secretary-General of the Good Party, Brett Herron. But he adds: "The City has always applied its enforcement of this by-law in a selective manner".

"The prioritisation of enforcement depends on where you are talking about. If you had identified homeless people setting up camps in areas like the city centre or Atlantic Seaboard the response would probably have been different."

So, if the law can't be enforced in an equitable manner, perhaps the law should change? ... and indeed there are amendments in the pipeline. But, according to Herron, "the amendments propose to introduce a new law-enforcement power – the power to tell a person to leave an area and to remain out of an area. This is clearly targeted at homeless people. Again it will be selectively applied and is simply a mechanism to displace people. It is not a solution."

So, once again, it seems the City's strategy is to remove the homeless from view; and hope the media forgets about them.

And in the townships ... how does lockdown work? Most informal settlements are shacks constructed within centimetres of one another, each not much bigger than a small room, providing shelter for up to six people. How do you live, if your bedroom is your kitchen, is your living room ... and your toilet is 50meteres away? And how do you avoid contact with your neighbour, to observe social distancing, when your neighbour is sitting outside, in the very same space that is the only outside space for you to go to? ... what is lockdown supposed to achieve?

So is it any surprise that grocery and liquor stores and trucks are being looted on the Cape Flats? If people have no food and are prohibited from working, what else did the authorities expect?

Meanwhile, lockdown continues to be enforced on the upper and middle classes.

Ironically, these are the people that have homes to be locked-down to ... with gardens and space for pets to run around in. These are people that would voluntarily use face-masks, hand-sanitiser and observe social-distancing; if for no other reason than that they can afford them. These are the people that make up the long queues for 'essential goods', outside Checkers and Pick 'n Pay; shorter queues I might add, than those for food parcels.

And so the lockdown has demonstrated itself to be unrealistic and impractical, exposing the extreme

economic inequalities, which make it impossible us to be equal before the law. - (428)

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Life under lockdown

- examining the absurdities of
   a government response

“I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.” - Kahlil Gibran (35)
© Tred Magill Projects