We’re being targeted, say homeless

| Ian Broughton
From left: Nicole MacHattie, Johannes Ougat, Kevin Adams and Mike Slate, who has started a committee for the homeless.Slate recently organised a clean up of the local park. Picture: Ian Broughton

Homeless people in Observatory, Woodstock and Bellville have complained about a wave of law enforcement operations against them in the last two months.

Several people have complained to the Legal Resources Centre in Cape Town of assault.

The City of Cape Town has denied that street people are being targeted by city officials. The City took allegations of street people being threatened very seriously, said Mayoral Committee member Suzette Little.

The LRC’s Anthea Billy said street people’s rights were being seriously violated. “There seems to be a general onslaught on people on the streets and they are using city by-laws to do it,” she said. She said she had taken statements from five people. The LRC was working with SPEAR, an ad hoc committee set up by street people to give them a voice.

SPEAR founder Mike Slate was one of those who found himself at the receiving end of an operation. On 11 February, he says, he and his girlfriend were sleeping under a bridge in Observatory when they were woken by a group consisting of Law Enforcement and security guards from Observatory CID (OBSCID) and Groote Schuur CID (GSCID).

Slate says he and his girlfriend had been sleeping there for two weeks and had even been woken up several times by OBSCID guards who had not told them to move.

But on February 11 he says they were told they were only allowed to have one blanket. Other items were confiscated, including a duvet, blanket, mattress, clothing, prescription spectacles and contact lenses, an antique mirror, scientific calculator and a grinder which he had fixed for someone.

Slate says that when he protested, the security guards became aggressive and one threatened him with violence.

While some of the guards were busy with him, says Slate, others took his girlfriend aside and forced her to sign a document banning them from the area.

He was also accused of “pimping out his girlfriend.”

When he went to Woodstock SAPS to lay a charge of theft he says police refused to open a case.

Western Cape police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Andre Traut said he should report this to the management of the station. “Every person has the right to a policing service, and the homeless man you are referring to is by no means excluded. He is encouraged to report the refusal of a service to the management of Woodstock police station so that the matter can be investigated,” said Traut.

Slate claims that it is mostly drug users who are being targeted.

Another homeless person in Observatory, who asked that his name not be used as he fears he will be targeted and harassed even more, says he was accosted by members of OBSCID and members of the SAPS on 10 February at the spot where he was sleeping next to the railway line.

His possessions, including a black bag full of clothing, were taken from him and he was escorted away to a place near the River Club.

He says that when he insisted on his stuff being returned he was told: “Moenie kak praat nie, ons is moeg van julle nuwe inwoners.”

“I spent the rest of the night in an upright position, chilled to the bone and with no clean clothing.”

In Bellville, homeless people who sleep in the parking lot opposite Shoprite say their possessions have repeatedly been confiscated.

One man says he was awakened by Voortrekker Road CID (VRCID) guards who told him to move from where he was sleeping behind an electricity box close to Oakdale.

He claims he was disoriented by bright lights being shone in his face and then an unmarked bakkie appeared and the driver told him: “We don’t want you people here.”

As he got up to move away, he realised that his bags with all his possessions were missing. When he asked where he could collect his stuff he was told that it was being sent “for destruction.”

Early in the morning of 27 March I saw a convoy of vehicles, one with a trailer, go through Observatory. Several street people were ordered to move from their sleeping place on Roman Road. A few minutes later security guards and a policeman searched the bag of a man on the Main Road.

The man, who did not want to be named, claims he was falsely accused of being involved in something illegal, but when he asked the police officer and City Improvement District members what he had done wrong they could not give him an answer.

He says he was told “not to be clever” and that the policeman, whose name is known to GroundUp, threatened to lock him up if he was seen on the streets again.

The man was ordered to stand to be photographed and his fingerprints were taken on a portable fingerprint scanner. He was then told to leave the area.

The City’s Little said these operations had not been sanctioned by the City and no particular group of people was being targeted.

“No personal belongings of homeless people are confiscated. Only structures are removed and general mess like plastic, cardboard etc. If items are left unattended in public places, then these items are treated as abandoned goods and then bagged and taken to our holding facility at Ndabeni where they can be collected by the owners.”

“The City takes very seriously allegations regarding street people being threatened or sworn at. Anyone with information in this regard is encouraged to report it to the City for investigation.

“Both the City’s Social Development Department and staff from the Safety and Security Directorate are expected to treat street people with respect at all times and to uphold their dignity,” she said.

The CEO of Groote Schuur CID, Anthony Davies, confirmed that joint operations had been conducted with City Law Enforcement and SAPS but would not comment further.

Chief Operations Officer of OBSCID Brian Amery said security guards accompanied Law Enforcement and SAPS “to point out areas where there are by-law infringements, such as sleeping in the streets and in public open spaces”.

He said OBSCID staff and the guards had no right to act against homeless people “and they are specifically instructed to do nothing illegal in this regard”.

But, he said, “We also acknowledge however that many of the homeless people in Observatory are long term addicts, with no wish to be helped. Observatory is a dense, dynamic, urban area, with a wide range of urban management challenges and a large homeless population.

“We will never condone human rights abuses, but we will continue to tackle behavior that is illegal and antisocial, in our efforts to make Observatory a safe, livable community in which a wide diversity of people can feel safe and at home.”

The Chief Operations Officer of Voortrekker Road CID, Derek Bock, said street people’s claims that they had been harassed, threatened, sworn at or ordered to leave the area were only allegations.

He said only City Law Enforcement was allowed to confiscate clothing and blankets but the CID guards removed stuff such as cardboard boxes and crates.

The chairman of the Street People’s Forum, Greg Andrews, said the City’s policies on the homeless were “archaic” and that street people had become “a political football”.

“Each person you meet on the street has a unique set of challenges. And they combine in startlingly varied and complex ways to make any one-size-fits all solution completely off-target.

“The solution is not to get them off the street, but to help them figure out how they are going to get themselves off the street.”

Ian Broughton is a freelance writer who is also involved with a local NGO that provides health services to street people: SPEAR (Street People’s Platform to Enable Advocacy and Representation).

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