Grassroots help for homeless, drug addicts thrives in lockdown S. Africa

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 July 2020 14:35 GMT

Matthew Nxumalo stands in front of his tent in Capital Park where he has been living since lockdown in Tshwane, South Africa. 8 July 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

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While some shelters have made headlines for harsh living conditions, others have become unexpected havens for residents

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By Kim Harrisberg

TSHWANE, South Africa, July 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Michael Steyn heard South Africa was imposing a strict lockdown to fight the coronavirus in late March, he rushed out to buy enough heroin to keep him supplied for weeks.

By May, to his surprise, he was off drugs for the first time in 25 years, living in a community-run homeless shelter in the city of Tshwane, where medical staff are helping addicts access opioid substitution therapy to get clean.

"I used to look for happiness in drugs... but now I feel stronger and want to help others feel this way," said Steyn, 40, in the office of a former bowling green where about 50 people have been living on the lawns in U.N.-donated tents during lockdown.

He is one of at least 2,000 homeless people living in shelters in the city variously run by community members, charities and the government as part of measures aimed at keeping them off the streets long after the lockdown eases.

Governments worldwide have been racing to assist the estimated 1.8 billion people who are homeless or live in inadequate housing, putting them at a heightened risk of infection and of infecting others with the virus.

As many countries start lifting emergency measures, housing activists say they must turn efforts to aid homeless people during the crisis into longer-term solutions.

Onida Venter, the doctor administering the methadone for drug rehabilitation in homeless shelters, stands beneath a sign with her name in Tshwane, South Africa. 8 July 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg


There are between 100,000 to 200,000 homeless people in South Africa, according to the Human Sciences Research Council, a research agency.

While some of the nation's homeless shelters have made headlines for harsh living conditions and police brutality, others have become unexpected havens for some residents.

"I found paradise here," said Matthew Nxumalo, 35, a mechanic who is also on the methadone programme, which has helped some 200 people in different shelters since the beginning of the lockdown.

"Nobody else thought about us until we arrived here, but I feel like I've been given a second chance," Nxumalo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation before he gathered firewood in the bushes next to the bowling green to light an evening fire.

South African charity Participate Empower Navigate (PEN), which has been working to tackle homelessness in Tshwane since 1992, started collaborating with 23 existing and new shelters during the lockdown.

"We work to help people realise: I can do this by myself and I am good enough," said Chief Executive Officer Marinda van Niekerk from their offices in Tshwane.

Before the pandemic, the charity ran two drop-in centres for the homeless where they could come to lock up valuables, have a shower and speak with a social worker or counsellor.

One of the centres has a recycling buy-back facility, allowing clients to bring cardboard, glass bottles and cans for a daily rate of 150 rand ($9) to help get them back on their feet.

Finding ways to aid homeless people to get off the streets and into jobs was always a priority for the charity, but the coronavirus pandemic forced it to change tack, van Niekerk said.

Drop-in centres became shelters when the charity realised the lockdown would make even informal work impossible for many of its beneficiaries.
"A positive about the coronavirus pandemic is that it spotlighted the need for long-term homelessness solutions," van Niekerk said.

Katleho Ncape (L), Smangele Bhengu (middle) and Zakhele Mazibuko (R) stand at the entrance to a PEN homeless shelter where they work in Tshwane, South Africa. 8 July 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg


Malcolm, a Zimbabwean migrant who asked not to give his real name, ended up sleeping in a Tshwane park with his life's belongings in a suitcase in April 2019 when he ran out of money trying to repair the car he used for a driving job.

"This centre was a blessing to me," said Malcolm, who now works as a manager at the shelter that became his home after a PEN employee told him about it in the park.

"They took me out of a hopeless situation and empowered me. I was treated like a human being," he said, sitting in his office.
The bowling green shelter in the working-class suburb of Capital Park - where Steyn and Nxumalo are staying - has partnered with PEN to meet the needs of its residents, but it was set up thanks to a grassroots community initiative.

When the lockdown was announced, the local residents' association decided the old bowling green rented from the city as a community centre had to be put to better use.

"We told the city we had to be a part of the solution," said Michael Burt, chairman of the association, who helped establish the impromptu shelter with other members.

Michael Burt poses for a photo beneatht the heart he built at the homeless shelter in Tshwane, South Africa. 8 July 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Burt has been living in his caravan on the bowling field with the association's spokesman, Sam Moimane, to help monitor and mediate the needs of the recovering addicts.

They plan to launch a charity called Tshimologo Care Centre, meaning "beginnings" in Setswana, a local language, to replicate the model of methadone rehabilitation, group counselling and skills development for homeless people elsewhere.

"We just need open land," Burt said. "We want to help get them jobs and make this progress sustainable."

Of the 22 addicts that started the shelter's opioid substitution programme - in which doctors and nurses administer declining doses of methadone - 14 are completely clean and eight are on track, Moimane said.

"COVID-19 forced us to look at our community, and to change the way things were," he said. 
On the field next to the tents, Burt fashioned a heart shape made out of wood, hanging it between two poles that face the street opposite the old bowling green.

"Hey Sam! Turn on the lights," Burt shouted, and the red fairy lights he had pinned around the heart lit up the evening.

"I built this for anyone who needs to see this during lockdown," he said with a smile.

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($1 = 16.8221 rand)

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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