Wearing an old shapeless jacket, baggy trousers and plastic sandals with mismatched socks, he ambled down the street. He crossed the service road, and, squatting on the narrow island which skirts Beach Boulevard, across from Marine Circle, he pulled down his trousers and defecated, in full view of restaurant-goers across the road.
The warm winter sun beat down on the wooden tables. There, cyclists, families and couples were performing a common Saturday ritual, having a relaxing meal as the waves danced before their eyes across from Beach Boulevard. But their usual routine was disturbed. It was not only expressed by the looks of horror and a sense of bemusement on their faces but a prick of conscience. What does a homeless man do when nature calls?
But as suddenly as it all happened, it ended. News Cafe restaurant manager, John Lakin shouted at the man to clean up and then crossed the road with a wad of paper towels. There was embarrassed laughter and the noise died down as the man appeared to slink away, as his brief but humiliating moment under the radar evaporated.
A party of three women, celebrating a birthday, resumed their festivities and the diners faces’ relaxed as their drinks were refreshed and they took deep, soothing gulps.
The homeless man’ s life also continued – as he faded into anonymity and obscurity. Yet his troubles remained.
Mr Lakin walked around to tables to apologise for the inconvenience that was temporarily caused. But a story unfolded as he sat down to chat to us and was picked up a few days later when we met to discuss it further. It’s a more than common story.
Much as they do in other parts of the city, a group of half a dozen homeless folk have settled in the area commonly referred to as Marine Circle. It is made up not only of the circle but includes the roads that branch off Marine Circle.
There, according to Mr Lakin, the two score restaurants or so that line the streets make easy pickings for those who rely on handouts or scratch in the bins for their survival.
But while Mr Lakin says he understands their predicament, he also sees the “nuisance” the homeless cause as they rifle through bins and search for a place to sleep.
“At the back of our premises we have a changing room for our staff and we had to put up a security gate there. In fact, we even put up gates around the area where our supplies are delivered as the vagrants would come and use this area as a toilet and mess around the yard as they scavenged through the boxes and bins.
“You can’t blame them for looking for anything they can find, but they are a constant menace,” he says.
“We end up managing as best as we can and everybody tries to be as unconfrontational as possible. But unfortunately sometimes the customers get involved.”
And who is the man who has highlighted the issue of the homeless in the area? As luck would have it, he is spotted wandering around close to the News Cafe on the day I return, and I approach him. His name is Paul Anthony Smith. He’ll be 51 years in September. Address unknown, but many years back, he tells Tabletalk, he lived in Devil’s Peak, Claremont, Goodwood then the Eastern Cape and of late, when he has a few rands to spare, it’s been The Haven night shelter in Kraaifontein.
We sit on a wooden bench across the road from Blaauwberg beach. He offers me a peppermint from a packet and an exchange of sorts takes place as I give him a tenner.
He talks. “I try to keep myself clean and I always carry a bag around to do my business. I really didn’t expect that to happen last Saturday and yes, it was a bit embarrassing. It wasn’t some kind of statement I was trying to make. My stomach went.”
His life on the streets started about 11 years ago, he says.
“I was alright till about 2002 – I sold insurance; products and travelled all over the place.” One of his last fixed addresses was with family, he adds, but he was asked to leave as there “wasn’t enough space for me”.
“So I ended up on the outside.”
There are many questions to ask. As to how he spends his day? How does he survive? How does he make it through the freezing nights with so little? His answers are in a way predictable but make sense. “How do I survive? I have to skarrel to survive. I approach people for help.
“I look for work but I don’t have clothes and I need a job to have money to buy clothes to get work.
“On a daily basis I have to wake up early. I try to get some breakfast – I sleep on the circle and rely on the goodwill of others,” he says, as he holds up a blue refuse bag filled with his few meagre belongings which includes a thin blanket and a few other plastic bags to protect him from the elements.
“I had a choice in life and now that’s fallen away. It’s not that easy,” he says.
How much does he need to make it through the day. “How much do I need? How much do you think I need?” he retorts quickly. “It would be nice to have a few tots of liquor to get through the day but there’s not enough money for that. So I buy some cheap wine to warm me up at night, what with the weather so bad and then I have to give half of it away,” he says, referring to the few others who sleep on the circle with him.
On a short-term basis, his greatest wish is to get some soap, a few plastic bags and a warmer blanket to stave off the worst of the cold. But in the long-term, it’s to get back on his feet. “I want people to stop alienating me and to get some real help.”
Tabletalk asked the City what they thought of the issue.
According to JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, the City’s law enforcement section, together with the social development department, conducts regular interventions with a view to reintegrating street people with their families.
“However, many of them refuse the assistance offered by the City,” he said, adding, “when complaints are received, these units conduct operations and the street people, along with their structures, are removed from these public areas. However, addressing this issue in the long-term remains a challenge, as law enforcement agencies have found that when they leave, the street people sometimes return to the area. This is why the City’s enforcement actions are complemented by a social development aspect, seeking to assist street people in the long-term”.
As far as the incident of defecating in public, Mr Smith commented: “The City’s by-law relating to streets, public places and the prevention of noise nuisance states that no person shall in a public place: use abusive or threatening language; fight or act in a riotous or physically threatening manner; urinate or defecate, except in a toilet; appear in the nude or expose his or her genitalia.
“Residents are encouraged to report any criminal activities or by-law transgressions to law enforcement on 0860 103 089.”
Suzette Little, mayoral committee member for social development and early childhood development, told Tabletalk that, “the plight of street people touches all responsible individuals deeply. It is therefore natural that when members of the public are confronted with, or exposed to the need of street people directly, they are likely to react with compassion. Research suggests that giving to people living on the street directly, actually helps to sustain their living on the streets. It also sends a message to other needy persons that a living could be made by being on the streets. We urge the public to refrain from giving money or any other form of materialistic support directly to street people who beg on our streets as this doesn’t solve their problems, and may even reinforce choosing life on the streets as a permanent way of living.”
She said the City encouraged those who want to help street people to rather make donations to accredited NGOs with a track record of working with street people. “Alternatively, members of the public can make a R10 donation by texting the word ‘Give’ to 38802.”