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- Ufrieda Ho

Home, health, identity and dignity - creating smarter solutions and symbiotic thinking for Jozi’s homeless people.

The streets of Johannesburg are home to a variety of people trying to make a living from whatever the City provides. While we need to rethink how we include homeless people into our communities, Wits Health Sciences students are showing us how to care.

'Living inside a bridge', an photo exploration by Alon Skuy of the unusual and challenging   spaces inhabited by people. ©Alon Skuy | 

When day gives way to night in Joburg, parts of the inner city become an enormous bedroom. Under bridges, on grassy verges, and against shuttered stores, hundreds of homeless people lay their heads. By dawn, the homeless retreat into the blur of a city too distracted to notice or to care much. It has made homelessness in the city conveniently invisible and smarter responses to homelessness a low priority. 

For Associate Professor Sarah Charlton in CUBES (the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies) in the Wits School of Architecture and Planning, smarter responses begin with understanding that homeless people are not a homogenous group. 

“There is high diversity in people who are homeless. Homeless people are not all the stereotypical drop-outs, vagrants without purpose, disconnected, on drugs, or criminals,” says Charlton. 

Many people who are “sleeping rough” have productive lives, says Charlton. It may be the piece-job construction workers who camp out in parks near their construction sites because their wages don’t cover commuting and accommodation costs. There are also the City’s recyclers, many of whom sleep near recycling depots. 

Homeless individuals 

“It is more complex than we realise and we need to learn to differentiate and understand individuals’ life circumstances,” says Charlton, whose work around homelessness and the city has shown that, in the last few years, homelessness is more directly embedded in the suburbs than on the City’s edges. 

It is the likes of informal shacks rising on open plots at the front door of the Oppenheimer’s Brenthurst estate. It is Saturday morning Parkrunners literally running into people eking out a life in the corners of the parks. It is homeless people seeking shelter in the storm water drains that mark the still-serviced areas of the City. 

It is the kind of collision that makes for WhatsApp group noise, and takes up column-centimetres of rage and frustration in local newspapers. What it doesn’t do, however, is advance thinking that allows more multi-pronged solutions to take root in the City’s response to urban homelessness. 

While Charlton doesn’t have a magic wand for easy fixes, she says there are initiatives that can shift mind-sets and build a more resilient Joburg in the long-term. 

“We can start by thinking about what wages we pay people, and whether these cover transport and accommodation costs; or why the focus remains fixed on property owners’ rights and keeping parks pristine without also finding ways to support poorer people in these areas. It enforces inequality and exclusivity in the City,” she says. 

Inclusionary policy inflammatory 

Charlton notes positive policy shifts like the City of Johannesburg’s new inclusionary housing policy, adopted in February. It compels private property developers to reserve 30% of all new developments of 20 units or more for lower income earning buyers, or to meet their obligations through one of the other mechanisms. 

The policy is meant to integrate residents across income brackets, to close inequality gaps and encourage sharing of amenities, reduce commuting time and costs, and stimulate localised business and job opportunities.  

But the policy has been controversial. Private developers say it dents profit margins and discourages investment in residential property development. Others say it is a policy of political point scoring that will devalue suburban house prices overall and create more urban slums. 

Charlton counters, “We are not talking about RDP [Reconstruction and Development] housing. We are talking about more options for lower- and middle-class income earners. It would be the nurse who is looking after you in the private hospital, for instance. Why would she be good enough to help you recover, but not good enough to be your neighbour?” 

A wellbeing economy 

For Wits PhD candidate Simon Mayson, the creation of a wellbeing economy holds answers to responding to homelessness in the City. Mayson says this includes addressing spatial inequality in Joburg. 

“For many people who own big properties, their homes are unmanageable in terms of maintenance, security and upkeep. It is also wasteful. That extra space could be freed up for alternative housing options,” he says. 

Mayson says a shift to focusing on wellbeing over personal profit and introducing localised, community-oriented solutions can make small initiatives massively powerful. It can help those sleeping rough and it can leave people who have wealth and privilege happier through sharing meaningfully. 

In the suburb of Lorentzville in Joburg East, where Mayson lives, works and conducts research, he has introduced ideas like developing a localised skills directory and leveraging local assets that include established businesses and anchor developments. He bridges these to create access to markets for jobseekers and to competitively priced supply of labour, skills and products for local businesses. 

Homeless, health, identity, dignity 

For Trinity Health Services and the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, merging strengths and collaboration has also helped them make the most impact for the homeless community on Wits’ doorstep. 

Trinity Health Services began in 2004 when Wits health sciences students approached the Holy Trinity Church about running a health service parallel to the Church’s soup kitchen and regular religious services. 

Deanne Johnstone, Lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Wits, says the collaboration was a first of its kind. “It illustrates religion and medical science working together, pointing to a new direction for churches involved in healthcare in an era where the older paradigms are no longer possible,” says Johnstone. 

Smarter solutions and symbiotic thinking allow for ways to optimise shrinking resources even as needs grow and competing agendas keep pulling people apart. 

Johnstone says that the student-driven and run Trinity Health Services programme is both a valuable learning experience and a lesson in service and recognising the needs of the most vulnerable in society. 

Father Nobert Munekani of the Holy Trinity Church says they see around 80 people every day at their daily soup kitchen and this swells to 300 on clinic days, when the Church runs two soup kitchens. 

Munekani says it is important to remember that the needs of homeless people vary, even as they may have a basic need to fill a grumbling tummy or treat a cough. 

“Some people come from the rural areas, some from other countries. They are on the streets for different reasons. We have even helped some people go home, but they find their way back to Joburg in a few weeks,” says Munekani.  

He says some of the greatest needs are helping homeless people to apply for identity documents and providing technical skills training so people can become more employable.

Munekani says homeless people have also asked for Bibles. This was unexpected, but prompted the Church to launch its “Come home to Jesus” group. 

The Trinity Health Services clinic and pharmacy operates from the Church’s basement floors every second Monday of the month. Volunteers like fifth-year medical student Caitlin Johnstone say homeless people battle most with access to medical treatment in the City. 

“There is still a lot of stigma around homeless people and it makes it easy to dismiss them. But we’ve met people who have degrees and families and they’ve just fallen on hard times,” she says. 

Caitlin says the volunteer clinic “re-ignited the spark” of studying medicine for her when she signed up in in her second-year. The volunteers are aiming now to involve more student volunteers from other disciplines, including dentistry, psychology and social work. It is aiming for holistic care. 

“Volunteering at the clinic helps you to really see people, to have empathy. Sometimes you may just be treating a cold but that person is benefitting from being seen, being looked after and being acknowledged,” she says.

Living Inside a Bridge – Alon Skuy

'Living inside a bridge', an photo exploration by Alon Skuy of the unusual and challenging   spaces inhabited by people. ©Alon Skuy |

Photo-journalist Alon Skuy is a Ruth First Fellow in the Wits Department of Journalism. Living Inside a Bridge was his exploration of unusual and challenging living spaces inhabited by people who use means other than electricity to survive. 

The opening is no bigger than a manhole. Beyond it lies the dark belly of one of the busiest highways in Johannesburg. Thousands of cars rush over it each day, completely oblivious of the world beneath them.  

Inside the highway, a small group of men and women live quietly, surfacing to work, wash and cook. When the sun sets, they retreat inside where candlelight flows through thin partitions separating a motley mix of lives. Posters of FHM beauties hang on the bare concrete, dusty Persian rugs are rolled out and people rest on mattresses. The highway never sleeps, it rumbles under the river of tyres. Inside it, live people. 

They are a group of around 20 people, living as a closed-off society. They decide who joins them and who doesn’t – some have lived inside the bridge for many years. Some work and others don’t. The police have raided them before. The people wash in the storm water drains and cook over wooden fires. They hail from different countries – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Kenya, and Malawi – but live as one, surviving in a world with no electricity, fresh water, or healthcare. There is limited air and precious heat during cold winters. 

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.