The plight of the homeless

From left to right: Alex Abrial Talu, Angelo Swarts, Shaun Hibbert, Denise Engelbrecht and her husband Aubrey.

Those who call the streets of Sea Point home say they have found themselves there for a number of reasons, from having a rough start in life to the repercussions of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Some said they have been homeless since they were children, while others have only been homeless since last year.

People living in more than 30 tents set up alongside the tennis courts, opposite the Sea Point police station, said they have nowhere else to go.

“I was given to welfare, to foster parents, because my mother’s employers said she could not house her kids while working for them, she was a domestic worker,” said 50-year-old Aubrey Engelbrecht.

“The foster parents used to lock me in a bathroom when I was young to punish me. I sometimes got home and there would be no food. At school they teased me, called me pittekop, and I used to fight and I hurt the other kids, I was angry, and I was good at throwing stones. I hurt kids all the time, and I would be punished almost every day,” he said of his childhood in Bellville.

Mr Engelbrecht’s behaviour would follow him throughout his adolescence and adulthood, placing him in a juvenile detention centre at the age of 14. He admits that being in juvenile detention and subsequently jail only served to fuel his criminality, with assault being his primary offence.

Angelo Swarts said he ran away from his Elsies River home in 1989 and has been imprisoned for crimes including housebreaking while living on the streets.

“I was a young boy and I lived with people that treated me like I was a maid, I had to mop, sweep, clean. I didn’t like it. After I spent the money from a Big Walk raffle I decided not to go home or to school because I didn’t want a hiding, so I headed to Cape Town,” the 42-year old said.

“When I first got to Sea Point I was attacked by people in this area, they would call me names, smack me or kick me for no reason, Mandela was still in jail that time. It was tough being on the streets and then I got involved in crime. I was arrested for assault among other things, I think I’ve been in jail for more than 20 years,” he said.

Mr Engelbrecht and Mr Swarts last saw the inside of a jail in 2013, and both are looking for employment but say the pandemic is another obstacle. “It’s difficult to find a job in this time, I love working in gardens but no one is hiring,” Mr Engelbrecht said.

Denise Engelbrecht, 38, says she has been on the streets for over 20 years and that she has been on a waiting list for government housing since 2005, while 60-year old Ickraam Osman says he has given up hope on housing.

“When I was 17 years old I decided to leave home. My dad’s family drank a ot, and I had to buy the alcohol, I just had to do what they say. If I refused to do anything or to buy alcohol I would get a beating. I could not handle it anymore and decided to leave. I’ve been on the street since then,” the former Heideveld resident said.

They homeless say they keep the area around their tents clean and despite their circumstances put on a happy face.

Shaun Hibbert said he lost his job due to the lockdown restrictions and joined those living in the tents last November.

“We lost everything, our house, my car, everything.”

He said he was a former retail manager. “I was retrenched due to Covid-19. My brother Paul and his friend Charles O’Neill are with me in this tent, and our two dogs,” said the 49-year old.

“Paul used to work for Spoornet and Charles was retrenched from Saldanha Steel. Paul has emphysema so he struggles to breathe, so this is quite tough for him. It’s also not safe as people have robbed us, so we have to stay here and look after our things, it’s getting worse.

“We are looking for work but Covid has made it difficult. Everything has come to a halt and we don’t hear much about work opportunities.”

Alex Abrial Talu is from South Sudan and came here for a better life.

Alex Abrial Talu made his way from South Sudan to Cape Town via Zambia, Botswana, Pretoria and Durban.

“Being homeless is tough. Here in Cape Town there are organisations that want to help you, in Pretoria and Durban there is no help, especially when you’er on medication, it’s really tough to get help,” the 32-year old said.

The former child soldier witnessed his parents’ deaths, and when his sister died, he fled South Sudan due to the ongoing fighting.

“I was in the army when I was 10 years old, but I left the army because my father was taking my money and I was getting nothing,” Mr Talu said.

“My parents were killed by rebels, and my sister died of cholera, so now I’m alone.”

Mr Talu said besides food and water, medical assistance is urgently needed by the homeless.

“I’ve been lucky that people helped me on the road, they listened to me and would give me money for a bus ticket. So here I am but it’s tough. Thankfully there are people like Soupertroopers, Supreme kitchen and Community Chest that are helping us. These people are not gangsters, they have kids, brothers, sisters that they look after, but we need help,” said Mr Talu, referred to as pastor by the homeless people.

The view of the Atlantic sea matters little to these people on the street.