Police target homeless in Somerset West

Mary-Anne Gontsana
A woman at the HSPC in Somerset West. Photo by Mary-Anne Gontsana.
Mary-Anne Gontsana

Last year GroundUp ran a story about the Helderberg Street People’s Centre (HSPC), a soup kitchen in Somerset West. They were being forced to close down. The situation “has since gotten worse” according to chairman of the centre, Ian Greer.

Greer claimed that the ward councillor of the area, Stuart Pringle, was “hell-bent” on closing the centre down because he had been receiving complaints from residents about the street people.

The centre is in a building owned and leased by the City of Cape Town. According to Greer the lease for the building started in 2002 and was for five years. It was renewed in 2007. It has since lapsed and is currently on a month to month rental.

“Given the cold weather conditions, we purchased, at some considerable expense, some 300 blankets to distribute to those sleeping on the streets or in inadequate shelter. We distributed the blankets on 11 June and on 12 June. The police conducted a raid and confiscated several of these blankets, along with clothing and shoes of people who were sleeping on the streets. Not only that, but over the past couple of weeks, several people were issued with fines for “loitering” or “causing a nuisance”. The fines are in the region of R100, which of course the unemployed and poor cannot afford. As a charity of limited means, we cannot afford to pay the fines for them and we are concerned that these individuals will be imprisoned,” said Greer.

He said he believed that this was a form of intimidation to stop the homeless from sleeping on the street since Pringle was unsuccessful in shutting the centre down. “We have a pending court case at the Somerset West Magistrate’s Court on Thursday regarding these fines and we are prepared to fight this. This sort of harassment is unacceptable and I believe that the matter needs the attention of a human rights lawyer.”

Pringle however says Greer’s accusations are “incorrect”. “I’m unaware of a court case. Mr Greer is incorrect in his allegations as I don’t have executive authority to order such operations and in fact I have an agreement with the City’s property management department to keep the lease going from month to month. After our discussions, the City’s property management department have kept the lease going on a month to month basis in order to give the HSPC an opportunity to find alternative premises. I’m not aware whether or not they are even trying to find an alternative so I have also asked the City to look for a suitable alternative as we cannot simply stop such a valuable service to the most vulnerable members of the community. My understanding is that [the Department of] Social Development do want to provide a more holistic service though from a facility more convenient for people living on the streets.”

Suzette Little, the City’s mayco member for Social and Early Childhood Development, said Pringle had done everything in his power to have the matter resolved.

“This property is managed by the City’s Property Management Department. The soup kitchen is a privately operated entity which is utilising the City’s facility to provide food. The current lease lapsed during the previous financial year and as a result the facility is operating on a month to month rental.”

Greer turned to the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) for advice. He says he has been advised by the LRC’s lawyers that most of the summonses against the people who use the centre are invalid.

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TOPICS:  Homeless Society

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