Homelessness in the time of Covid-19

I read a post today that spoke about how we are not all in the same boat when it comes to Covid-19 – “we are in the same storm”. This really hits the mark, so I thought I’d borrow it for my take on homelessness during Covid-19 lockdown. If ever there was a contested and complex issue, this is it. By virtue of being homeless, “Stay at home” becomes a very difficult law to abide by.  So my first point: Let’s be tolerant.

I live on the edge of Van Riebeeck Park - wedged between Oranjezicht and Vredehoek, circling the crown of Gardens and lying at the foot of Table Mountain, this park belongs to all of Cape Town.

With the familiar urban drone diminished during lockdown, the early morning birdsong is more noticeable. As is the murmur of about 50 homeless people lighting fires and rolling up makeshift beds, zipping tents and boiling water for breakfast.  These regular morning sounds are interspersed with a regular sunrise visit by law enforcement, telling people to pack their things and “be less visible” as “the residents are complaining” and its “against the law to be outside”.

I wonder how to be less visible, when you have nowhere to hide, when you have your life in a backpack in a city you may not move through. After three weeks there is still no workable solution being offered to the majority of Cape Town’s homeless community. Strandfontein has been criticized from concept through to execution. The Safe Space at Culemborg was full to capacity within the first 48 hours. The regular shelters stopped taking new arrivals as lockdown loomed, having to protect the people already housed. So where should people go?

The evening before lockdown I started a conversation with Walter Nyamugama, an artist selling wire art in the CBD. About a month before lockdown business was slowing down for Walter - the global impact of Covid-19 on tourism was being felt in South Africa. As such he could no longer afford his daily rental in a backpackers. A Zimbabwean foreign national, he identified Van Riebeeck Park as a safe space for a temporary home. He was joined by a group of friends, fellow artists, street traders, Uber Eats drivers. On the night before lockdown he was confident that they would be collected and taken to a safe space. He was willing to go where he was told to go. Once lockdown started only South African homeless residents were collected from the park, foreign nationals were told to stay. It became harder for them to move through the city to find meals. While Ladles of Love and other NGO’s do a sterling job feeding 100’s of homeless people each day at The Haven and The Safe Space, it is apparent that the growing demand is placing strain on these systems. As is the restriction of movement and the fear that belongings will be stolen if they leave it behind to go for a meal. Reports from existing shelters instill fear, while the fact remains that there aren’t enough beds or space for the city’s homeless population.

While some residents in the neighborhood respond with anger towards the homeless people who remain in parks and on the street, I believe that these extraordinary times calls on us to respond with extra-ordinary humanity. Tolerance and kindness is required and an understanding that people really have nowhere to go.

When residents complain about homeless people staying in the park, law enforcement is compelled to respond. Often this response is very traumatic for the people on the receiving end of the law. Last Friday, Ziggy Goredema, who lives just beyond a servitude to our property, was picked up by law enforcement. He is a quiet man with a vision to becoming an environmentalist. Right now he is homeless. Ziggy’s story:

Meet Ziggy from Plexus Films on Vimeo.

Get Involved

CBD CAN supports Ladles of Love, Streetscapes and U-turn. We are currently developing a care pack for homeless residents to protect them when they are moved to shelters or need to access soup kitchens. These packs include:

•Hand sanitizer
•Mask with usage guidelines
•Towel cloth
•Toothbrush and Toothpaste
•Sanitary pads for women.
Covid-19 info pamphlet with emergency numbers


If you’d like to contribute to the care packs we are putting together, please click here

If you’d like to support meals, please support Ladles of Love.

While we encourage homeless residents to visit soup kitchens for daily meals, we recognize that sometimes this is not possible. Let us make respectful and responsible choices in how we choose to support each other.

On 15 April MSF released a report on homeless shelters in South Africa under Covid-19. They found that “smaller facilities located in communities where the community members offer support in the form of food or clothing for occupants” tend to be a better solution. In cities around the world disused buildings, conference venues, boarding houses and hotels are being made available to house homeless citizens during lockdown, as a city, I believe Cape Town can do better to provide dignified safe solutions to homelessness.