Chilling reality as Cape Town's homeless face winter's wrath

Homeless people are seen sleeping outside a car dealership on Roeland Street. Picture: Henk Kruger

Homeless people are seen sleeping outside a car dealership on Roeland Street. Picture: Henk Kruger

Published Apr 23, 2024


While many are concerned about the rising cost of living and especially higher electricity prices during winter, around 20 000 Capetonians are homeless.

With temperatures predicted to drop to dangerous levels this winter, it’s even harder for those who are sleeping on the streets to survive. With so many people in Cape Town not having their housing needs met it makes winter an even more frightening prospect.

Each year, as winter approaches and the temperature begins to drop, many homeless people, including those usually against living in the City’s safe spaces and shelters make the decision to move from the streets to the city’s shelter system to escape the cold.

However, few communities have city-wide cold-weather response plans, and many of the plans currently in place leave gaping holes in accessibility and availability.

Shelters and safe spaces often have no resources to help them cope with the increased demand caused by cold weather conditions.

The City does offer expanded winter services during the winter months by assisting shelters with extra mattresses (usually 10 per shelter), as well as groceries and EPWP staff to assist shelter operators.

Unfortunately, we already experience such a shortage of bed space that this initiative, although important and appreciated does nothing to alleviate the demand and pressure.

It's at times like this that I feel communities should be involved in impacting, especially the churches in their areas, to offer resources to help the homeless people escape from the cold.

I am sure that the City would oblige with supporting such initiatives with staffing through an EPWP program. At least, I hope that would be the case.

Without a carefully constructed winter plan, homeless service facilities may find themselves unable to accommodate the influx of residents, and some of those people who seek shelter are turned out into the cold.

With nowhere to stay except the streets, people experiencing homelessness have a much higher risk than the general population of developing exposure-related conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite.

These conditions can be immediately life-threatening and may also increase the risk of dying from unrelated conditions in the future. Increased homeless services, especially additional shelter availability, are necessary to accommodate the amplified need in the winter.

Here are some comments by young people living on the streets this winter: “Pretty much every second of your time will be spent trying not to die.”

Following a breakdown at home, 16-year-old Jen wandered the streets in winter doing what she could to stay conscious: “I hang about in McDonalds or Somerset Hospital until they kick me out, and then I try to find somewhere else warm. It’s just so cold; I don’t even have socks. I’ve got big scars on my ankles from walking about all the time.

“Even though it is horrible and cold and I don’t have any spare clothes, in my head it is still better than what I ran away from.

“It’s ridiculously cold and dangerous. And all the shelters are full or they don’t take families or pets… it's a never-ending battle to survive.

“If you live on the mountain when it's raining, the wind is blowing and it’s ice cold. It becomes dangerous trying to come off the mountain to find some food.

“You get people that help, but most blame you for being on the streets. I don’t have the strength to try and make them see the truth”

Being homeless in winter is ruthless, but there are certainly proactive things we can do to help those rough sleeping at this time of year from winter care packages to volunteering, here are some handy tips on helping homeless people this winter:

– Donate winter care packages for homeless people. In the colder months, homeless people need warm clothes and essentials more than ever. It’s easy to put together a homeless kit for winter which, alongside the usual hygiene kit items such as soap, wet wipes and toothbrushes, can also include warm clothes and thermal items.

Please contact me should you wish to in any way contribute to those living on our streets this winter:

* Carlos Mesquita is an activist for the homeless and a researcher working in the Western Cape Legislature for the GOOD Party.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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