Winter highlights plight of the homeless, their neglect by us all

The homeless community is under siege from an uncaring government, judgemental society and the cold winter nights from which some do not survive, says the writer. /Alaister Russell
The homeless community is under siege from an uncaring government, judgemental society and the cold winter nights from which some do not survive, says the writer. /Alaister Russell

With winter beginning to intensify its stranglehold on our towns, cities, villages, slums, hamlets and other places populated by people, one begins to fully appreciate just how painful it is to be poor and homeless.

You will see homeless people, weighed down in cardboards, pieces of clothing and tattered threadbare blankets, teeth chattering as they approach your car at the robots - seeking succour.

You will see some of them under a bridge, huddled together in an attempt to coax warmth from each other's bodies and their fires.

But at some stage the pieces of wood, cardboard or plastic they use for fuel will run out. The freezing teeth of winter will sink deeper into their bodies. Some will not see the winter through; they will die from exposure.

That is why in many countries during winter time police and other public servants will be charged with the responsibility of rounding homeless people up and taking them to shelters.

Soup kitchens, not always popular with the homeless in the US and Canada as they are sometimes seen as a controlling mechanism against those who like to think of themselves as "free spirits", will come back alive in winter.

Winter does not discriminate: it hits and humbles even those members of society who call themselves "free spirits", who won't work even if there were job opportunities; who won't stay in one place even when there is free shelter. Food banks, too, come into their own in winter.

Of course, these scenes of benevolence - soup kitchens, food banks, community shelters - are things that will sound alien to South Africans.

In this country we do not care for members of society who are less fortunate than the rest of us. We control government budgets, run big corporates, live in golf estates - and think of the homeless as a nuisance.

It's not that we cannot afford to take care of our own. We refuse to take care of them. The tragedy of Life Esidimeni will always be one example I will cite when it comes to our attitude to the less fortunate members of society.

The organisation had been provided with millions of rand to take care of some South Africans with mental illness. They died in their hundreds, thanks to the negligence of those charged with their safety and comfort.

I am citing Life Esidimeni in light of what appears to be a deliberate campaign to murder homeless people in the city of Tshwane.

Over the past week, five homeless people have been murdered in the city's Muckleneuk area.

Perhaps the work of a lone serial killer, or a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to "clean up" the neighbourhood. But it is indicative of our attitude towards poor people in general, and the homeless in particular. We don't want to see them.

The murders reminded me of a movie I saw some years ago, where the serial killer also targeted homeless people in Brazil.

The similarities are striking: both Brazil and SA are the most unequal societies in the world - the gap between rich and poor keeps growing.

Perhaps if authorities at both local and national level were to show, through leadership, that poor people also matter, that they should be given respect and dignity, the rest of the society would also rediscover its conscience and do the right thing, whatever contribution they can make towards the amelioration of these people's plight.

A country that cannot take care of its most vulnerable - children, those living with disability, those who are destitute and homeless - is no society at all.

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