Poor versus business in Somerset West

| Mary-Anne Gontsana
Chairman and volunteer of the centre Ian Greer (blue shirt). Photo by Mary-Anne Gontsana.

A soup kitchen serving poor people in Somerset West struggles to stay open following pressure for it to relocate from the ward councillor and a business woman.

The Helderberg Street People’s Centre in Somerset West cares for poor and marginalised people. It is a soup kitchen, but it also offers counselling and support to people with drug and alcohol problems, amongst other things.

“When they took my son away from me, that is when I realised that I needed help.” These are the words of Christopher Petersen, a former tik addict who lives in Sir Lowry’s Pass and works at the centre as a volunteer. He also counsels drug addicts and teaches woodwork. Petersen has been off drugs for three years. He took tik for 12 years. When he was addicted, he got help at the centre. Ian Greer, the centre’s chairman, helped Petersen go to rehab. Petersen now has his son back. He is grateful to the centre for turning his life around.

But the future of the centre is uncertain.

The centre is currently “battling to stay in its present location, in town, while certain vested interests are determined to move it out,” says Greer. He started the centre over ten years ago. He said that about five years ago Magel Grove, a property developer, moved into a building opposite the centre. As time passed she started complaining, claiming that having the poor in the area was bad for business.

“You do get some of the people who, after receiving their meal, sit down and eat on the pavement, but what can you do about that? It is a public place and they do not disturb anyone. After eating they leave. Grove has even gone as far as photographing the poor people and then using that to complain and urge other surrounding businesses like the library to push for the centre to be moved. I mean why would a person do such a thing?” said Greer.

Grove did not deny this and said that previously the building was used as a tourist centre and that it was a bad decision by the city to allow a street people’s centre to be opened in that location.

“Look, the lease for that centre has expired. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way against the work that Mr Greer is doing. I am just saying that where the centre is now is not good for business. People go there for food every afternoon and you find that some of them will sit right in front of the shops and some of them will beg from our customers. Obviously the customer will not come back to a place where they will be pestered.

“The only reason that they do not want to move is because they pay R180 a year for that building whereas I pay R8,000 a month for tax. That place has damaged the centre of town and the best solution would be to find a suitable location where it can be moved to, somewhere not far from where these people live and come from,” said Grove.

The centre is in a building owned and leased by the City of Cape Town. According to Greer the lease of the building started in 2002 for five years and was renewed again in 2007 without any objection. The lease comes up for renewal shortly.

Ward councillor Stuart Pringle said the centre’s lease had expired and the renewal of the lease had gone out for public comment.

“There have been several objections to the renewal of the lease from various quarters, but I haven’t seen the objections so I don’t know which organisations have objected. I have over the past few years had complaints from the Police Forum, the local ratepayers association, Helderberg Crime Watch, the neighbourhood watches, Sakekamer (Chamber of Commerce) and businesses and residents,” said Pringle.

He said two of the most popular complaints were that the centre fed not only street people but anyone who wanted food, and that would bring in hundreds of people who were lining up the street which created a negative look to the establishment. The second was the fact that there was a liquor store not far from the centre. “You cannot bring street people and feed them right next to the liquor store.”

An activist from the Social Justice Coalition, Gavin Silber, said he thought it would be a bad decision should the city decide to close the centre down. “In an attempt to gentrify the city, the poor are being driven out. The work that Ian is doing is an essential service because these people have no other source of nourishment available for them. This whole situation is quite worrying and I think that it is strange that only now after 10 years, they want the centre to close.”

Pringle said he believed that the street people’s centre had done great work in assisting the homeless since it was established but the city could not decide whether to keep it open or close it.

“The city does not run the street people’s centre and therefore cannot decide to either keep it open or close it. The city, together with other NGOs, has offered several alternatives and there is a great deal of willingness to work to a solution which benefits the community in general. The matter will probably be discussed at the council meeting at the end of this month. I have for the past two years been discussing with the Churches who run the centre and Greer, several alternatives and ways in which we can assist to make the street people’s centre work better both for the people living on the street and the community more generally,” said Pringle.

Greer said in his talks with Pringle, alternatives such as the centre being moved elsewhere and not shut down were welcomed by him, but as of this moment, no other place has been established for the centre to move to.

A correction was made to this article on 18 October. The quote from Ms Grove which stated, “I pay R1,000 a month for tax” was changed to “I pay R8,000 a month for tax”.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights Local government

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