Fire destroys park squatters’ shacks

Squatters living in Vasco Road Park are accusing residents of burning their shacks.

Squatters in a Brooklyn park have accused residents of torching their shacks to get rid of them, but they have vowed to stay put.

The fire department says the cause of the fire has not been determined.

A 40-year-old man suffered severe burns to his head and neck after his shack went up in flames on Monday August 30, according to squatters. They say man has not returned to the park since he collected his bag of belongings on Wednesday September 1.

The fire broke out in Vasco Road Park, at about 11am, and a man was treated for head injuries on the scene, according to City Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Jermaine Carelse.

Milnerton and Brooklyn brigades were at the scene of the fire, which destroyed two shacks and left four adults without shelter, said Mr Carelse.

At the park on Friday, September 3, a man, who would only identify himself as Gerry, said he was on parole for good behaviour and was “skarreling” when the fire happened.

He claimed the squatters had admitted to him that they had been using tik in their shack, made of wooden pallets and boxes, when their lighter had fallen onto something flammable.

Despite saying this, he claimed residents would do anything to get rid of the squatters and burning their shacks “seemed to be the best option”.

“Some of us, like me, we are here because we have nowhere else to go. For others, this space is used as a drug den and all fingers are pointed at us,” he said.

“We are not the ones breaking in and robbing people in the area; it’s the young people who do that, but we get targeted because of our (appearance).”

He said he had been a carpenter for four years but had been sacked for stealing tools and materials and had ended up on the streets after serving “some jail time”.

Fifteen people lived in the park, but they were not there at the time because they were either looking for something to eat or doing odd jobs, he said.

When Tabletalk returned later that day, children in school uniform were sitting along a fence in the park, and a squatter who wouldn’t give his name said: “Why don’t you go speak to the people burning our shacks.”

A resident, Sam Bouwers, accused the park squatters of fuelling problems with drugs and dumping in Brooklyn, but she said it would be cruel to burn their “homes” as they could be hurt or killed. The squatters had blamed the residents for the fire because they feared being removed from the park, she said.

She complained that the park was overgrown with weeds and grass and attracted litter. And the debris from the fire had still not been cleared.

Justin Kumlehn, the chairman of the Brooklyn, Ysterplaat and Rugby Residents’ Association (BYRRA) and Maitland Community Police Forum, said the park had long been a problem and parents refused to take their children there.

The BYRRA had asked the City and the ward councillor to mow the grass and restore the park to what it had once been.

He said police patrolled the park and he had been informed by the police that it was local children, and not the squatters, who were smoking dagga and drinking there.

“This is a social issue,” he said. “Parents should keep track of their kids.”

Maitland police did not respond to questions sent to them on Thursday, September 2. Calls to Maitland police’s Captain Louis Solomons went unanswered.

Ward councillor Fabian Ah-Sing said the residents had not set the shacks alight because they were aware of the consequences of taking such illegal action.

The squatters had refused to budge, turning down offers of assistance and shelter from the City, he said.

“The displaced people’s unit visited the area on Monday September 6, but none of them were in the park. We will visit there later this week.”

A shack had also burnt at the park in November last year but the cause of the fire had not been determined, Mr Ah-Sing said.

The park’s grass had been left so spring flowers could grow, and the debris from fire would be cleared this week, he said. Play equipment had been fixed in November 2020, but children had vandalised it in a matter of weeks.

Dr Zahid Badroodien, mayoral committee member for community services and health, said bed space at shelters changed daily, but there was rarely no space at all, and most street people did not want to be placed in shelters.

Fire crews from Milnerton and Brooklyn at the scene of the shack fire on Monday August 30.