The men left standing

It is a cold night in early April when I drive home from dinner and a movie in Rosebank. On my way to my flat in town I pass the group of homeless men I consider my night time neighbours. Every night from about seven they gather there and pass the time, sharing stories and food before they go to sleep bundled up against the metal doors of the closed shops.

But tonight something is off. Tonight they stand at the edge of the pavement, one after another, silent.

The image is imprinted on my mind and when I run into one of them a couple of days later I ask him to tell me why they were standing.

This is his story:

Around half past nine that night a police truck and two police vans arrive. One of the men is awake and, smelling trouble, he quickly picks up his belongings and runs. The police block the pavement at both ends with their vehicles and some 15 to 20 police officers step out and rudely wake the men up, telling them they are not allowed to sleep there.

They order the men to throw everything they own into the police truck. Everything. The cardboard they sleep on, the paper and plastics they’ve collected for recycling and all their personal belongings, clothing, shoes and blankets. They also have to collect and dump the belongings of the men who sleep on the next pavement and who managed to get away. When the police truck is full, the police stop a passing garbage truck, and the men see the trolley they use to collect recyclables disappear inside.  One man refuses to give up his sleeping bag and gets into a fight with some of the policemen, who eventually give up. They get back in the vehicles, close the doors and drive off.

Leaving the men with nothing but the clothes on their backs and each other’s company. So they stay and because the pavement is too cold to sit, they stand. They stand and wait until the sun comes up to bring light and warmth and they can leave for the day.

I listen to his story and part of me wishes he hadn’t told me, wants to walk away from this. I don’t want to have to absorb this knowledge of police officers pouncing on people at their most vulnerable, taking away what little possessions and means of living they have.  I don’t want to have to think about how many more groups of homeless people in other parts of town are victims of the same harsh treatment.

But I can’t walk away.

It’s about a year ago that I first introduced myself to this group of men, after many nights passing their sleeping forms on the pavement while on my way to my comfortable home.  With help from my friends I’ve occasionally brought them hot soup, McDonalds burgers, blankets and clothes.

Every time I visit we have a chat about what life on the streets of Jozi is like. Why they choose the street over a shelter, that you need black shoes for some of the jobs you want to do, where in the city you can take a shower hoping that someone has left a piece of soap, how to look for a burst water pipe to wash your clothes and then find a spot to dry them, that a nasty wind can blow the rain right on your blankets so you’re not able to sleep that night, how much money can be made from collecting recyclables, that the streets have secret places to hide your belongings so you don’t have to carry them around.

More and more I respect how tough life on the streets is and how resilient and creative these men are.  This particular pavement is their home and this group of men their family. A family that looks after each other and shares whatever there is in food, clothing and blankets. Being together helps to keep their dignity.

And it’s exactly that dignity I see crushed by the brutal police action.

The new blankets and clothes my friends and I organise are welcomed but calling in the assistance of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) turns out to have the most impact.

The lawyers meet with the men and listen to their story. They explain that it is not illegal to sleep in the street, that the Constitution provides them with their rights to dignity and to freedom of movement and of association.  The city even has a positive obligation to provide shelter and care where needed. It is definitely illegal for the police, as it is for anyone else, to take their belongings away.

The men feel empowered by the visit and the information. The lawyers offer to speak with the police on their behalf, to remind the police of those same rights and obligations and get some form of agreement that it won’t happen again. The men will have to discuss whether they want to go this route. But they are traumatised and feel vulnerable. One thing that would keep them from accepting the offer from the LHR is their fear of retaliation by the police when they formally put down their story in an affidavit.

I fully appreciate this fear; it is easy for the lawyers or me to suggest this action, but we won’t have to sleep in that street at night.

It is not yet clear whether they will feel strong enough to trust that speaking up for their rights will not result in retaliation but in an end to these nightly raids.

So they will feel safe in their sleep again. And won’t be left standing.

Josine Overdevest – 8 May 2015

About the image: ‘The Long Wait – 18’ by Faith47. For more info see:

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