GroundUp goes shelter-hopping in Durban

Some charge R20 for a night in a filthy building

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Photo of a room in a shelter
Conditions in shelters for the homeless vary widely. Photo: courtesy of The Nest

Shelters are not always places of refuge for the homeless. Running a shelter can be a lucrative business exploiting desperate people, as Ian Broughton found when he went shelter-hopping in Durban.

Some of these establishments are capable of generating up to R200,000 a month in revenue while flouting the law.

More than a year has passed since Durban officials promised that shelters would be strictly regulated and would have to meet certain standards. The City was to formulate a policy based on the results of a survey on homelessness by the Human Sciences Research Council.

The results of the survey were handed to the City in July this year but it will be months before an official policy will emerge.

In the meantime shelters are supposed to be regulated under the Accommodation Establishment By-law and the Problem Buildings By-law.

But it seems as though it is still business as usual, though officials say they know of shelters which flout by-laws and are a health and safety hazard.

“During our regular by-law enforcement operations, we have discovered shelters where people are required to pay as much as R40 per night. Some of these are rundown buildings that compromise the safety and health of those sleeping in them,” says eThekwini Head of Communications Unit, Tozi Mthethwa.

But inquiries about what action, if any, had been taken against the offenders were not answered.

Shelters can be a profitable business – especially if one reduces expenses by eliminating overheads – clean toilets and bedding, and meals for example.

The number of shelters in Durban has grown over the past few years, taking advantage of a sizeable homeless population while the City struggles to come up with solutions to the homeless problem.

There is a big demand for cheap accommodation and a range of people depend on shelters, including many who have an education and skills but can’t find work. Many pensioners as well as those surviving on a disability grant depend on shelters too.

While some shelters do aim to provide a refuge for those who are struggling, others shamelessly exploit them, renting out bed space in filthy rooms in dilapidated buildings where health hazards lurk and a myriad of municipal by-laws are ignored.

So just what does your money buy you in the world of shelters?

Probably the cheapest roof over your head for a night currently is a shelter located in Smith Street in the city centre. It is run by the Methodist Church and costs R10 a night.

It is one of the few that seem to be genuinely trying to help people but, as might be expected for the fee, there are limitations on what to expect.

Residents must be outside the door by 6pm, after which no-one is admitted, and an ID book is required to gain entrance. The price includes a shower and a meal but residents must leave the shelter by 7am the following morning. One homeless man complained about lice.

At the bottom end of the shelter market, the unscrupulous make their profits. On Cato Street for example, there exists an establishment whose rates start at R20 for a night in a filthy building, sleeping on a bed with shabby mattresses, no sheet or pillow and blankets that look as if they have not been cleaned for weeks.

Approximately 50 double bunks are located in a single large room. One needs to walk up two flights of steps to another floor to use the bathroom.

Toilets, covered in vomit and excrement, don’t flush and taps don’t run. The floor is full of puddles and the stench is overpowering.

In the sleeping area dagga and hard drugs are openly used. It’s wise to watch your possessions. Even your shoes can go missing during the night, as one resident, who had to leave the building barefoot, found out,

For R30 or R35 you can share a room with two or three other people.

A few buildings down is the City Shelter which seems a pleasant enough place to stay for R25 a night or R175 a week. The sleeping area, consisting of about 30 double-bunk beds is clean and neat and includes DSTV.

There are two showers and toilets – also clean. No meals though.

There are two so-called shelters on Pickering Street, Point. This is right on the doorstep of one of the busiest drug trading areas in Durban, so it is no surprise to learn that users are among the frequent residents and drugs are used openly.

One of these, Durban Shelter – another shoddy, dilapidated building – charges R25 for a bed in the main communal area, which was ankle deep in litter when GroundUp arrived, but was eventually swept.

Clean sheets and blankets are rare and the whole place has a gloomy aura about it – an air of desperation.

One resident expressed his dissatisfaction but shrugged and said it was all he could afford. “But I don’t use the toilets here, they are dirty.”

There is also the option of paying R60 for one of the tiny single rooms some of which look more like prison cells. Some of these rooms are home to families of four or five and quite a few young children roam about.

A manager (not the owner), who preferred not to be named, admitted it was a business and not a humanitarian effort, but could not explain the sign touting it as a shelter.

He said bedding was only washed once a month – by hand. He acknowledged that most of the residents were using drugs.

Another place on the same road doubles as a shelter and a lodge. The sign outside says Victoria Lodge. while a poster on the wall at reception welcomes one to the Glitz and Fusion shelter. The cost is R120 for a room by yourself or R35 for a room with 8 people. Four double bunks are crammed into the room which has its own shower and toilet.

An evening meal is included in the fee.

The place is an improvement on its competitor but, according to one resident, it is frequented by drug users and sharing a small room with seven other people can be unpleasant.

These places are not what a shelter is supposed to be,” said one homeless man who chooses to sleep outdoors even when he gets enough money from begging to pay the fee.

“R30 is a lot of money for someone on the outers. And what do you get for it? Some of these places are very dirty and full of lice. They are exploiting people.”

The Nest is Durban’s biggest and best-known shelter, housing more than 100 people at any time. And at R38 a night, R250 a week or R950 a month it generates a significant turnover.

It is one of the more respectable shelters in town but even here there are problems, and complaints from residents.

The beds are located in one large living space. There are three toilets and two showers (with hot water) in each of the men’s and women’s bathrooms.

The fee includes a bowl of porridge in the morning and a cooked meal at night. There are two large TV screens with DSTV– one in the main sleeping area and another in the sitting room which adjoins the kitchen. Staff are employed to clean and cook meals.

This is about as good as it gets for the rate but is not without its faults. When it rains the roof leaks, beds get soaked and there are puddles of water all over the place.

It is also infested by rats which scurry about during the night raiding people’s bags for food.

Another problem is bedbugs – the place is full of them.

“I don’t like living like this,” says James, who survives on a old age pension.

“And it is not cheap. I get a pension and pay R950 for rent – what is left after that? Not much, and then I still have to pay for washing, toiletries and other things.”

The Nest’s manager Thomas Soswane acknowledged the pest problem but was stumped for a solution, saying they had tried traps and poison for the rats and having the place sprayed for the bugs – all to no avail.

He said he had spoken several times to the building’s landlord about the leaking roof but without success.

Soswane admitted that the fees were “a bit unfair”considering the income of the residents but said The Nest would not be able to survive otherwise because it received no other funding

“Rent, water, and electricity, paying staff and buying food are really costly,” he said.

The shelter was paying R55,000 a month for rent, water and lights according to a 2014 Nest brochure.

Taking the shelter concept to ridiculous lengths is a recent new entrant into the market. Situated in the upmarket suburb of Stamford Hill this “shelter” turned out to be nothing more than a small space in a garden cottage.

R30 gets you a space the size of a large cupboard – just big enough for a mattress - or a place in an extremely small room with another resident. Can’t afford it? Hey, this place will even give you R5 off the price - if you don’t mind giving up the mattress.

TOPICS:  Homeless Housing Human Rights

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Your article about these so called Shelters is shocking. Even though homeless people are penniless, they deserve to be
treated with humanity and dignity. It appears that they are down in life in every aspect and these Shelters are not providing an overnight roof but simply making money.

The Health Dept should send an Inspector to check on these premises and provide pest extermination if not for free at least at an affordable price for the landlords. I wonder if a lifestyle check on these owners would not provide with an interesting outcome This is unfair and taking advantage of the homeless is very heartless, weather they are addicts or whatever. Outside The Nest the place is full of litter, would be good to see some of the homeless cleaning it and perhaps get some form of payback for their effort.

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