Not all street people are criminals

They live in pipes under the road. They have nowhere else to go. They are the most vulnerable people in our society.

They are routinely branded criminals, and referred to as “the scum of the earth.”

In the past three weeks, a rising tide of vigilantism has threatened to boil over into unlawful action by members of the community who feel their right to protection under the law, is not being fulfilled by local government or law enforcement agencies.

Their enmity is focused on a group of 20-odd people who live in pipes under the bridge that crosses the Lourens River, adjacent to the intersection of Main and Gordon roads in Somerset West.

Street people have been in Somerset West for decades, and it is an intractable problem. Despite Herculean efforts by NGOs and CBOs (community based organisations) like the Helderberg Street People Centre (HSPC) and the Somerset West Night Shelter, it seems that the net outcome is, if not a steady rise in the number of street people, then at least a homoeostasis in the tally as some people are successfully reintegrated into the community, while others, for a multiplicity of reasons, end up on the street.

At local government level, street people fall within the ambit of the social development and early childhood development directorate (SDECD), but street people do not even warrant a mention in that department’s vulnerable groups policy document.

Instead, street people warrant one third of a page in the City’s overall social development strategy document, and aside from noting that “street people are a vulnerable group that require assistance to achieve reintegration into communities and access to employment opportunities,” the policy notes that homelessness is a complex matter requiring effective co-ordination between multiple City stakeholders and the NGOs and CBOs better equipped – presumably than the SDECD – to work with street people.

The policy does note that such NGOs and CBOs will be grant-funded to do their work, but what if there is insufficient capacity in that sector to address the business of getting people off the street and back into mainstream society?

A burglary in close proximity to the bridge, saw a breathtakingly disingenuous causal leap by the aggrieved party, who posted on Facebook that he was going down to the bridge to search the pipes for his stolen goods, because he was convinced that “those criminals” were responsible for the burglary.

The confrontation quickly became ugly, and the SAPS eventually intervened to keep the protagonists apart. The perception now being peddled on Facebook, is that the SAPS, City law enforcement, City officials, and local councillors, are all “protecting the criminals” who live under the bridge, at the expense of aggrieved residents who all happen to live in formal accommodation.

Post after post has appeared on a closed Facebook group, most of which amount to little other than incitement to commit violence against these “criminals,” because clearly, the authorities are not going to be doing anything, any time soon.

Suggestions have been made to move them to “agricultural compounds,” which is a chilling throwback to apartheid days, when forced removals, a significant contributor to the current divisions in our society, were the norm.

Last Tuesday, Andy Loughton of the HSPC managed to persuade 19 people from the bridge – or Gaaitjies as it has become known – to enter a reintegration programme.

They face a long, difficult road, with no guarantee of a successful outcome, but at least they now have a chance at redemption.

Nonetheless, there are people who simply prefer to live on the street, and actively resist reintegration into the community. Should they be forced to reintegrate, or should we simply gaol them?

That people who live in such circumstances do, on occasion, engage in opportunistic, petty crime is highly probable, but not all of them, not all of the time. If you found yourself there, can you be certain that you would not?

Their circumstances and their presence on the street, do not automatically make them criminals.

Such reaction to people who live on the margins of our society, is little short of xenophobia.

It is deeply troubling that so many people who live in the leafy suburbs, seem to think that our constitution is there to “protect” them against such “criminals” and all that is needed is “action” by the authorities.

The people who live under the bridge are as much members of our community, as are the people who vilify them, brand them criminals, demonise them, and want them forcibly removed.

That they do not live in formal homes in leafy suburbs like their antagonists, does not in any way detract from the equivalent rights they enjoy under our constitution.

We are all equal before the law, irrespective of our circumstances.

They are the most vulnerable members of our community, and what they need most, is help, not vilification or demonisation.

Is this what our society has come to?

Where is our humanity? Where is our ubuntu?