Having an active homeless task team in eThekwini has been our Durban’s homeless’ saving grace over this very rough period. At 6am on the morning after the announcement plans started to be formulated between the ask team and the municipality as to how we would cater for lockdown for people who are homeless. Many strategy sessions, go out and see if it will work, come back and rethink, see what doors could be opened, hammer on a number, or force our way through happened in those three days. A plan was hatched. bear in mind we have never had to do something like this before. We have had preparation through xenophobic attacks, and through the recent flood disasters, but never have you had to include a medical element to it. This essentially eliminates the very thing Durban is so good at, caring and being there when people are in need. Showing up become the most dangerous thing to do. Not for the volunteer, but just being there could literally kill someone. For the middle to upper income earners, who are fit and healthy, most of us are not going to be infected in a way that is debilitating. For the people we are serving it could be a death sentence; elderly, drug users, TB or HIV infected, poor diets and years of abuse don’t lend their bodies to fighting off the infection well. They need isolation, they need to be protected, and many of them need it from themselves.
So starting with the first day of lock down; we opened the Durban exhibition Centre as a screening and placement centre. The facility was only made available for such at 5pm the previous day. The homeless were invited to be heath screened ( TB, HIV and COVID symptoms, and well as some basic primary health care), seen by social work and then placed in one of the 13 facilities we have for them separating women and men and sick from healthy. In this process we were assisted by Department of Health, City Health and NPO’s, and Department of Social. The first day we assessed 1200 people. Two hundred more than we expected to show up. I know some people are asking why we thought only one thousand would arrive. Here was our logic… in 2016 the HSSRC did a study in Durban which identified we had 4000 homeless people in the CBD. 2000 lived in shelters and 2000 slept rough. We figured the 2000 who sleep in shelters would remain in them. The 2000 rough sleepers probably are now 3000, with inflation, but many had indicated they have somewhere they call home. So we figured about 1000 would chose that option. The study had also shown that between 30 and 40 percent are drug users. Woonga is the drug of choice. Woonga is a heroin derivative. We expected that those people would opt out of isolation due to them not being able to access their dealers. So yes we thought 1000 in total and possibly 400-800 max on the first day, as people figure out how serious the government is about this lockdown thing. Never in our wildest dreams would we have expected to arrive on Thursday morning at 6:30am to homeless people queuing to get in. 2000 in total. In the end we assessed over three days. Putting and end to it to prevent people cycling through repeatedly seeing what else they could get. The facilities were being established as they were being assessed. Marquees, toilets, showers, electricity, water, connecting the above, fencing, security, site managers, mattresses, blankets – the list of basics was long and at a time when non-essential businesses had told their staff to go home it wasn’t easy to procure these items, and sometimes took a day or two to happen., but happen they did.
In the shelters: some of them are buildings and some are marquees, each person has been given a blanket and a mattress – some have left and sold these in the hopes of getting another one. In the marquees they get given two pallets too – this raises their mattress off the ground and helps with social distancing. They have all been issued soap, toothpaste, facecloths, and tooth brushes There are teams co-ordinating food, medical assistance, drug withdrawal, chaplaincy services and Friday prayers for Muslims. Our residents get four meals a day; breakfast of maize meal porridge at 6 am, brunch of sandwiches and fruit at 10am, a varying lunch day to day (cooked or sandwiches) and a cooked dinner. We have made a plan for Ramadan to cater for our 70 Muslim residents. Our medical team has been incredible. Michael Wilson from Advanced access and delivery has ploughed time and energy into ensuring the medical state of our camps. He has had his hands full seeing to routine treatment of people, organising Doctors and nurses, ensuring all are screened and tested for communicable diseases like TB and HIV and are put onto the relevant treatment. He has also had to help the residents cope with withdrawal. Metro police, SAPS, and private security are involved in the security of the sites. They have been phenomenal – such an important part of this process. These people are not used to being contained, not used to be treated like citizens by policing. The police have just handled the situations with grace and dignity – sometimes way too calmly that has left us wondering how they could have ever been accused of brutality!?
Boredom has set in at many of the sites. Reading material; books, bibles and newspapers are being provided. Soccer balls are a great distraction, the odd game of cricket and tennis are being played too. And we are back to getting complaints about the food, too little, too spicy, too much bread (I am getting constipated), too much biryani (I have the runs), too salty, too much red meat, I have heard them all. It all stems from boredom – just like us at home.
The response has been a multi-faith, private, public, NGO partnership response, which has been enabled by our working Homeless task team here in Durban. Everyone has come together brilliantly to work as a unit. Each unit doing its part for the good of those entrusted to our care. It must be noted that none of this would have been possible without the exceptional leadership of our Deputy Mayor, Belinda Scott, and Acting Deputy City Manager, Vusi Mazibuko, both of which I have the utmost respect and admiration for. In fact, as I type this we are dealing with yet another crisis and at 10pm, without hesitation, I picked up the phone and called the DCM to work on a solution. I really feel blessed to be a part of this movement and moment in our City’s history. It has been a time where all differences have been put aside and all humanity has come together to serve those at risk, with no expectation of ever getting repaid.