Strandfontein homeless site more a prison than a place of safety — Human rights report

City of Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato along with other officials held a media briefing at their Covid-19 lockdown facility in Strandfontein followed by a tour of the large marquee tents. The media presence incited many of the people in the tents that was quickly stopped after media was urged to move along. The City of Cape Town’s Covid-19 lockdown encampment in Strandfontein for up to 4000 homeless people from around the greater city area. (David Harrison/M&G)

NEWS | 21 Apr 2020

Reports commissioned by the South African Human Rights Commission into the conditions of the City of Cape Town’s temporary Covid-19 homeless site in Strandfontein have recommended the facility be shut down.

“The site is in gross violation of national and international human rights and must be closed down with immediate effect,” said one scathing 17-page report compiled by independent monitor Tauriq Jenkins.

It is one of five reports handed to the Human Rights Commission investigating conditions at Strandfontein compiled a team by comprising medical health, legal, social services and gender experts.

Cape Town has built the temporary emergency facility on the grounds of the Strandfontein sports ground to house hundreds of homeless people during the Covid-19 national lockdown. It is currently hosting about 1 500 homeless people drawn from all parts of the greater Cape Town area.

The City has come under fierce criticism over the establishment of the site, and the treatment of people there.

The residents of the surrounding working-to-middle-class residential area have also been up in arms, saying they were not consulted about the site being set up in their neighbourhood.

Jenkins report raises ‘serious’ concerns

The Jenkins report also lists a litany of concerns which it describes as “serious”.

Among them include:

  • Inadequate testing of people for Covid-19. Only 11 people have been tested, with all tests returning negative;
  • Little or no psychosocial help to help people cope with the trauma of arrival to the site, the lockdown itself, as well as the escalating psychological discomfort permeating throughout the camp;
  • Medical assistance is available only until 4pm; and
  • People were forced by law enforcement to board busses to be taken to Strandfonfontein.

The report questions whether the City’s notion that people were brought to the temporary site voluntarily is accurate.

The document said living conditions in large marquee tents were not conducive, and that “hygiene is a serious problem”.

“Floors are not being scrubbed with detergents, no toothpaste or toothbrushes are available through the site, and there were areas of dampness due to recent heavy rain and leakages in the tents. There is a shortage of hot water,” it stated.

There is also concern about the welfare of drug-dependent people

“Many occupants are suffering from major drug-use withdrawal without treatment. According to testimonies of the occupants interviewed, methadone and medical support for drug-use withdrawal were to be made available on site. This has not been the case,” the report said.

The report concludes recommending that the site be dismantled and that people be transferred to smaller, more manageable safety areas.

“A careful and responsible repatriation process should follow. Repatriation and decentralising will require a process of an integrated and collaborative design with appropriate, well-vetted NGOs [nongovernmental organisations] in the social and development sector, civics, health experts, disaster management and civil society,” it read.

‘Violation of humanitarian standards’

In another report, medical humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF) said there was evidence of “violations of international humanitarian standards”.

“Residents of the Strandfontein shelter are at increased risk of negative health outcomes, including acquisition and transmission of Covid-19, TB [tuberculosis] and other communicable diseases,” its report said.

The MSF report raised concerns about large numbers of people, in some instances up to 600 individuals, being grouped in one tent.

“Large numbers of individuals are grouped together, with insufficient infection-prevention and control measures, and insufficient health promotion, therefore increasing their risk to airborne diseases such as tuberculosis and Covid-19; diseases transmitted orofaecally, such as viral and bacterial diarrhoea; and sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV, thereby exposing them to harm,” the report said.

The release of these reports comes days after observers, opposition parties, and rights lobby groups were refused access to the Strandfrontein site at the weekend.

ANC MP Faiez Jacobs staged a sit-in and refused to move after managing to get himself into the sports ground’s gates. He was not allowed close to any of the tents.

City of Cape Town response

In its response, the City of Cape Town said the reports are now outdated.

The site inspections by the monitoring groups were conducted on the weekend of April 11 and 12, and since then, the City said, things have changed.

This was confirmed by one member of the monitoring group, who did not wish to be named. They said there is now greater physical distance between the sleeping areas of people at the camp, and that access to medical services has improved, particularly the screening of people for Covid-19.

In an open letter to Cape Town residents, Mayor Dan Plato said the Strandfontein site was selected because it already had the physical infrastructure in place needed for an emergency shelter.

He said that physical buildings such as halls, stadiums, and community centres were not available for use because they had been earmarked as emergency medical and quarantine facilities.

“There is no doubt that we are operating under difficult and extraordinary circumstances, and we have not escaped the nationwide challenges of shelter operations, especially in the early set-up phase. But together with the existing shelter network, Cape Town has likely achieved the country’s highest per capita service reach to the homeless during lockdown,” Plato said.

There are also plans to decentralise the Strandfontein site.

“It must be stressed that the emergency shelter is a temporary holding location for purposes of the lockdown. Homeless persons are also not held against their will. Plans are under way to arrange shelter placement or reintegration for all persons at the facility who wish to take up this offer,” Plato said.

He added that: “The City encourages all interested organisations, churches and groups to get involved in taking care of Cape Town’s homeless community at this time. Those with the ability to help, do not need permission from the City to open their doors.”

Advised by experts

The mayor also stressed the city was being advised by homeless rights organisations, such as the Haven Night Shelter, on what is in the best interests of people in the temporary shelter.

“Based on expert advice, the centralised facility at Strandfontein offered a number of vital advantages, including daily clinic services, a minimum of three meals per day, and access to ablution facilities and shelter from the elements,” the City’s letter said.

Meanwhile, SAHRC commissioner in the Western Cape Reverend Chris Nissen said he was disappointed by the early release of the individual reports without him having spoken to City authorities.

“For now, I’m looking at it. And I’m looking forward to discussing the report with the City,” Nissen said.