At the start of South Africa’s nationwide lockdown in late March, a homeless shelter was set up in Mayors Walk, Pietermaritzburg. Residents at the shelter reported instances of abuse, forced imprisonment, and a shortage of food and blankets. “The security guards weren’t right. Some guys were escaping and so they were beating us,” said Siyabonga Makhaya, a resident at the shelter.
When VICE News visited the shelter in August, there were no security guards in sight. Sphephelo Dlamini, another resident at the shelter, explained that this is because he and other residents are now largely running the place. He said that they put together a committee to deal with people stealing or smuggling in drugs. “It’s us who are guiding each other,” he said. “If someone does something like smuggling in drugs, at first we’ll give you a warning. Then if you continue, you must go.”
The shelter currently has 70 residents, who are all rehabilitated. according to Dlamini.
“This place has changed a lot since the beginning,” said Dlamini.
At the start of South Africa’s nationwide lockdown in late March, housing was set up by local municipalities for thousands of people in stadiums, schools, and other locked-down venues. This includes the Mayors Walk Shelter, which was set up by the Pietermaritzburg municipality in conjunction with the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council. It is currently operating in an empty building belonging to TransNet, a rail and pipeline company.
While there is no national census on the number of South Africans who are homeless, a 2015 study estimated that approximately 200,000 South Africans live on the street. The crisis can largely be attributed to factors such as high unemployment, exposure to conflict and drug abuse, weak education, a lack of opportunities, and limited government support services. Yet, homelessness has been framed as a social housing issue by the South African government.
“Every corner of the city has two or three homeless people. The estimate is that 400 to 500 homeless people roam our streets,” Pietermaritzburg mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla told VICE News.
The COVID-19 lockdown has shifted the focus on homelessness from a housing issue to a health issue. South Africa’s Level 4 lockdown regulations, issued in April, tasked local governments with providing shelters with the necessary health protocols in place. This is the first time many homeless South Africans have been provided with a roof over their head and, in some cases, rehabilitative support.
Reverend Nkululeko Khumalo, who works for the Kwazulu-Natal Christian Council, has been helping run the Mayors Walk shelter in conjunction with the Pietermaritzburg Municipality. Khumalo said that initially 500 people were forced into the shelter. “We had a range of people who had been on the street between five and 15 years,” he said.
When the Mayors Walk shelter started, there were multiple attempted escapes. “Many people wanted to run away because they were going through withdrawals. With this drug whoonga, it’s like someone is cutting you inside,” said Dlamini, a resident who has been in the shelter since March.
Also known as nyaope, whoonga is a relatively cheap heroin-based drug. The full composition is generally unknown, although it’s believed to be heroin mixed with various substances including antiretrovirals used to treat HIV as well as, reportedly, rat poison and soap. The price of a nyaope joint costs R25 (about $1.50) making it one of the cheapest and widely accessible drugs in South Africa. Withdrawal symptoms typically include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.
Dlamini and other residents in the shelter managed to get through withdrawal with the assistance of methadone. Methadone keeps many of the withdrawal symptoms at bay by tricking the brain into thinking it’s still receiving heroin.
Unequipped to deal with the residents’ withdrawal symptoms, the shelter initially relied heavily on security. Dlamini, a resident at the shelter, explained that they now receive clinical support to manage withdrawals including methadone. Initially, this wasn’t offered. Both Dlamini and Makhaya said this is the first time they have been provided with any kind of rehabilitative support.
“At first, I didn’t like being here. But when the withdrawals were finished, I started to have an aim in life. I started seeing ‘Yeah, I still have a chance’,” Dlamini said. He has a family nearby and he hopes that some time soon he’ll be ready to return to them.
“The majority of the shelter’s residents are drug addicts,” Mayor Thebolla said “Through the shelter and the programs we have started, we have been able to help some residents. Our target was to get 30% [sober] but I believe it’s more than that.”
In Durban, just an hour away from this shelter, a COVID-19 Withdrawal Management Program was recently formed to help homeless people manage withdrawal symptoms. The introduction of rehabilitative assistance in the Durban Moses Mabhida homeless shelter dropped the number of residents attempting to run away to zero. This program is also using methadone. Similar initiatives are occurring in homeless shelters in other parts of the country such as Tshwane.
With a shortage of government-led rehabilitation centers and the high cost of private centers, this isn’t the first time unconventional rehabilitation centers have appeared in South Africa. According to the South African National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (SANCA), unlicensed centers mushroomed across the country in the past to help South Africans cope with Nyaope withdrawals. Inequalities in treatment mean that five out of six South Africans struggling with addiction don’t receive the support they need.
Reverend Khumalo, who is helping run the Mayors Walk shelter, said that his organization has been aware for years of the need for rehabilitation centers, and has sought to fill it. “There are very few rehabilitation centers in our province and they are also very expensive,” he added.
Along with clinical support, Reverend Khumalo attributes the transformation in this shelter to the guidance programs that have been introduced. “These are homogeneous and inclusive of gender and so forth. These are the gaps that some families couldn’t offer the residents here,” he said.
Makhaya, a resident at the shelter, said that he is grateful he’s had the chance to get sober and hopes for prospective job opportunities. “Before I came here, I was assisting some mums on the street with selling fruit and vegetables. Life was hard and difficult. When I leave, I would like to work with electricity. I don’t have a diploma though. I just learned from someone who I assisted.”
VICE News spoke to SANCA—the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence—and they commented on the need for longterm job creation to address the drug crisis.
“The government needs to engage those who are knowledgeable in providing shelter, bringing together experts in the field of substance abuse, and providing jobs,” a SANCA spokesperson said.
Mayor Thebolla admitted to the urgent need for skill development and job creation so that the rehabilitated residents don’t return to drug use. “I have commitments from various companies saying that if they’re fully rehabilitated, they can take them [a few residents] onboard.”
Thebolla also can’t comment on how long the shelter will continue operating. While he acknowledges the need for homeless shelters with rehabilitative support, he adds that the Municipality doesn’t have the budget to fund the shelter indefinitely. “There is a continuous need for shelters but the issue is sustainability. The migration patterns tell us that [homeless] people are migrating to bigger cities all the time,” Thebolla said.
In June, South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to 30.1%, a record high. This is expected to worsen. As the COVID-19 lockdowns continue, more South Africans than ever are facing the stark reality of unemployment, poverty, and most likely, substance abuse.
“People judge the guys on the street because they don’t know the circumstances that brought them there. But I know that life. I understand. They just need a chance. Help, that’s all they need,” said Dlamini, a resident at Mayors Walk Shelter.