Covid-19 homeless camp reunites teen with his family

01 August 2020 - 08:00 By Shonisani Tshikalange
At noon the homeless line up to be served food at Tshwane's Lukas van den Berg sports ground where a temporary camp has been set up for the lockdown.
At noon the homeless line up to be served food at Tshwane's Lukas van den Berg sports ground where a temporary camp has been set up for the lockdown.
Image: Shonisani Tshikalange/TimesLIVE

A teenage runaway, a dad dreaming of seeing his children again and a reformed drug dealer are among those helped at one of Tshwane's campsites for the homeless which have been set up during the lockdown.

During a visit to the sprawling site of white and military green tents at the Lukas van den Berg sports ground in Pretoria West this week, TimesLIVE also found out some of its temporary residents have since managed to find work.

In March, the site offered respite to more than 300 people.

The centre manager, Buurman Magaela, said there are were 246 people being assisted. Helping some to get back on their feet and others to reconnect with their families has reduced the number of people in the camp.

So far, 64 people have been reunited with their families.

“Some of their families have managed to come and fetch them, whereas we have been assisting others to travel home. The last one we helped was going to Tzaneen.

“When we see that the transport issues are delaying us, I sometimes take my own car and drive them home,” said Magaela.

AUNT NOW CARING FOR TEEN RUNAWAY 

Andile* told TimesLIVE he was living on the streets of Bosman, Pretoria, after a disagreement with his mother in Germiston.

He feels grateful to have been reunited with his family in Tzaneen, Limpopo.

The 16-year-old said: “I had a problem with my mother and siblings, I was always blamed for everything wrong that happened at the house, so I decided to run away.

“I went to the camp when lockdown started [March 27] after hearing that they were setting up for people who live on the streets,” he said.

The teenager said he started living on the streets in December.

“I used to help this other woman who used to cook. My mother knew that I was living on the street and I refused to go with her.”

The rift between mother and son has not yet been healed.

“She knows that I am home. I haven’t spoken to her yet. I am living with my aunt,” said Andile.

He said he will be going back to school next year to repeat grade 9.

On camp life, Andile said: “It was challenging to be the only young person at the camp. I came across a lot of challenges when I was there, most of them thought they could use me to do their dodgy activities like stealing. I didn’t let that discourage me or let them tempt me.”

His aunt, Dorah*, said she was relieved he came back home in one piece. She had not known her nephew was living on the streets, and only found this out on the day he came to her home.

“We were surprised to learn that he was living on the streets because we knew that he was living with his mother in Johannesburg. Before he came back here, I didn’t even know that he was living on the streets. His mother didn’t tell us what was happening.

If I knew that he was on the streets, I would have looked for him. I felt bad to hear that he was on the street. I am now happy that he is back home safely. They [Tshwane authorities] are helping the community,” she said.

PSYCHO-SOCIAL SUPPORT, AND JOBS

City of Tshwane spokesperson Selby Bokaba said there are more than 15 formerly homeless people in the city's camps who have found jobs and 450 people who are now receiving skills development training.

“The skills range from security, drawings to psychosocial skills,” he said.

Magaela said three people at the Pretoria west campsite he manages have managed to get jobs.

“Two [of those now working] are still living here because they say they are still not able to rent. They asked that they stay for a while and at least they will try to get a place to rent by month end. Some are still looking for work.

“We have two people who are now doing skills training in Atteridgeville. We told all of them and two people showed interest,” he said.

Bonginkosi Thabethe is one of those who has managed to move out of the camp, and is now living in Gomora.

The 25-year-old, who previously worked in construction, found himself on the streets after he lost his job.

“I was out of a job and the corona issue came. I had no place to stay so I came here. I haven’t found anything permanent but I am still trying here and there. I also have experience in fixing cars.

“I [still] come here and eat and then I go try to look for some work for the day. [But] I am renting [elsewhere] and I pay R300 rent,” he said.

Thabethe said his family was not aware that he had been homeless.

“They know that I am not working and I am looking for a job but they don’t know that I am here [receiving assistance in the camp].”

LIFE IN CAMP

The camp serves meals three times a day. At midday, the residents line up for lunch, the only female in camp, Bets Bezuidenhout, being the first in line to receive the plate of warm cooked food, a fruit and juice.

Food for those who are away from camp, for reasons such as medical check-ups or job hunting, is placed aside for them to eat when they return.

When everyone has had their plate of food, bodies press against each other as they all try to get another plate from any left behind. The centre manager tries to maintain order.

The 65-year-old Bezuidenhout, who shares a tent with her husband and her brother-in-law, said they were first accommodated at the Caledonian camp for the homeless, where they were victims of a robbery.

Bets Bezuidenhout who is the only woman in the Lukas van den Berg sports ground campsite received her food during lunch time.
Bets Bezuidenhout who is the only woman in the Lukas van den Berg sports ground campsite received her food during lunch time.
Image: Shonisani Tshikalange

Speaking of the sports ground camp, she said: “At first I didn’t want to be here, but now I like it.”

Her birthday is in June and she said some of the people at the camp bought her sweets to try to make the day special for her.

“My birthday was quiet, but I am old, it doesn’t matter, [though] I wanted a cake,” she said.

Bezuidenhout was excited that her husband, Pieter Bezuidenhout, had gone for a job interview at the time of our visit.

“When he gets the job, we go. We will go look for a place to stay,” she said.

Nare Ntshephe Mabokela has opened a shop at the campsite, selling snacks and sweets.

The 28-year-old admits he used to be a drug seller and user.

“I used to sell cocaine and I didn’t have a good relationship with the community in Polokwane. I came to Pretoria and I ended up on the street. Some social worker helped me to go into rehab last year for eight weeks.

“When I came out of rehab, I was scared to go back home because I did a lot of bad things to people,” he said. “I was living at a squatter camp and when they announced the lockdown, I saw that where I was, I was not going to be able to get food because we were expected to stay indoors, so I decided to come here in March,” Mabokela said.

Though his stock of sweets is sometimes stolen, he is feeling upbeat.

“My family doesn’t know how much I have improved. I want it to be a surprise. I feel happy that I was able to stop smoking because I used to make everyone suffer at home. I want to go back to school and study for business,” he said.

DREAMS OF MY CHILDREN COMFORT ME

Pule Nkosi can’t wait to see his two children when he is able to travel home to Newcastle.

“Being away from my family hasn’t been easy, I miss my children. I have been having dreams of them and missing them a lot, it has been a horrible experience.

“At least they are with their mother. Though we are still separated, at least I am able to call them. Their voices always comfort me when I am not feeling fine, I get better after speaking to them,” he said.

“When I get home the first thing I want to do is to see my children and give them gifts.”

The 31-year-old Nkosi said he was stranded by lockdown after coming to Pretoria for a church visit.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go ... If I was out on the streets anything could have happened, I could have contracted the virus because I would have been wandering on the streets.

“The camp helped me so much with food and bathing. If we were out there, where would we be able to bath? It has helped a lot,” he said.

Nkosi said he did not have the funds to travel home when lockdown restrictions were eased.

“What I mostly do in camp is wake up when it’s time to get food and then I come back to the tent and sleep. It’s boring. I also just sit in my tent and listen to music. I sometimes go out and take a walk at the park nearby and just meditate.”

Boredom is a challenge for the camp staff and Magaela is concerned about the risk of Covid-19 infection from people moving in and out of the facility.

“We get some of the people trying to go outside most of the time and when we tell them that going outside is putting them at risk, they argue that there is no-one who has the virus at the camp so it means the virus doesn’t exist. They don’t believe that it exists.

“We need to get a TV so that they can watch and see that the numbers are increasing and they can be able to educate themselves,” he said.

Thabethe said there are mixed messages about the coronavirus. “I believe that it is there, but I am not 100% sure, because that side where I am now living, everyone walks around without any mask, they only wear a mask when they go to get a taxi.”

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

Across the city's homeless intervention programme, Bokaba said there is only one person who has tested positive. The patient, from the Lyttelton gallery temporary shelter, was relocated to the Nasrec quarantine site in Johannesburg for treatment.

There are 15 active temporary shelters across the city and 906 beneficiaries in the shelters.

Bokaba said the city has currently earmarked a number of buildings to be converted and refurbished to become permanent transit centres.

“The plan is to gradually and in phases relocate qualifying beneficiaries who are in the current Covid-19 temporary shelters to permanent transit centres as soon as they are ready for occupation,” he said.

*Real names hidden to protect the identity of a minor

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