The Outsiders Part 6 ‘Now’.

The series ‘The Outsiders’ gives insights into specific aspects of the life lived by those on the streets of South Africa with reference to those in the same position globally, whatever political, economic and social system is present in the nation. So far, everything in their lives from some of the criminal enterprises those on the street engage in to survive, the continual quest for legitimacy in the form of paperwork validating one’s existence, the never-ending ‘danse macabre’ with the Police Authorities and Intelligence Services as well as those supposedly providing help in many forms via charities, foundations and religious organisations (let alone the NGO/NPO’s) have been touched upon. Then of course, there is the issue of xenophobia which many of the immigrants or asylum seekers are subject to, an issue we will examine in a further article in the series to be published. They are still on the streets but many of the facets they deal with daily have been changed by circumstances beyond their control.

Life on the streets just became tougher for those whose entire existence with an occasional break, is spent permanently on show with no privacy or means to escape from being in public 24/7. The downturn in the economy globally for the nations tied to the West and the Dollar has led to first world nations like the USA, UK and many parts of the EU having an increasing problem with homelessness exacerbated by the influx of migrants seeking a better ‘life’ ( though some are escaping conflict, most are economic migrants). Their home grown internal homelessness is a far cry from the past with very large numbers of people literally being forcibly (legally or not) evicted and not having the income to pay rent and afford the cost of ‘living’ at the same time, having lost jobs due to cost cutting and finding that employment prospects are very poor. Those jobs that are available are paid on a minimum level making it impossible to survive unless relatives or friends help out as the traditional providers of help, the charities, religious and government organisations are either swamped with applicants and cannot meet demand or offer such minimal help as to be almost worthless. With the continual rise in the price of basics like power, fuel, food, housing and travel, making ends meet has become impossible for many ordinary people forcing them to abandon a stable life and finding to their horror that their only option was survival on the street. Few people are prepared for such a step and the only way many are able to endure life (as much as it is ‘life’, on the street) is via the numbing induced by substances (escaping the reality they inhabit makes it just bearable). This in turn degrades their lives to where it becomes an uphill battle to be able to return to a ‘normal’ life. Officially, the numbers of homeless people in the USA for example is 500 thousand + but the reality is much different with many cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco having thousands not counted let alone all the migrants from South America and the Caribbean numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Figures differ depending on the source and when political bias is stripped out, many of those giving figures, who are on the ground as it were, dealing day by day with homelessness and migrants, give far greater numbers. All figures are an approximation through necessity. That of course does not include the ‘illegal migrants for whom the system does not have reliable tangible figures, whatever they say and officially report. In Europe, Germany lists the number of migrants as 16 million in total but the figure for just the past year is given as 3.8 + million. The UK gives figures which do not match those the French Authorities give and estimates the illegal entries giving a far rosier picture than the true facts as with figures given by those at the sharp end of immigration and homelessness. In South Africa, the official number of homeless street people is 500 thousand + but given its porous borders and the continual inflow of migrants from the surrounding poorer Southern African nations just looking to survive (to thrive is manna from heaven), the figure is way off. Zimbabwe officially admits that around 40 to 50 % of its population is in South Africa, giving the number of migrants from it a minimum figure of 7 million.

This has led to increased competition among the homeless and further made survival harder for those already living in that situation. The official services in all nations receiving migrants whether legally or not are now overstretched to the point of collapse as the number of users has risen without the commensurate increase in finances and staffing levels. Medical, Housing, Transport and Education systems are buckling under the pressure leading to the citizens of those nations having to start finding alternative providers which they have to pay for in order to receive what they were led to believe and came to expect as ‘normal’ service. In turn this has led to a distinct drop in the public’s donations to all so called ‘helping’ organisations and a growing dissatisfaction with the increasing number of migrants, whether their plight warrants compassion or not. In South Africa, this is taken to a further level with the addition of ‘load shedding’, the term used to describe electricity cuts where in cases for up to 4 hours, there is no power (unless you have the means for a generator or solar system). This impacts literally instantly on businesses and households leaving the majority of them in no position to do anything as we have become very aware of the fact that many of the everyday motions we go through in life are provided with energy by electricity, however it is generated. Plans are delayed operationally until power is restored and though alternative uses of the time that would otherwise be spent waiting occur, there is still the inevitable loss of time, productivity and of course income. Though the provider of electricity called Eskom gives schedules about when and where the power cuts will occur, the times are not always adhered to and unexpectedly and without warning, cuts can and will happen. This is catastrophic for planning and even worse for small one/two man businesses who often employ the street people on an ad hoc basis providing them with very little money but still giving cash and often supplementing it with food. Many street people get jobs by sitting/standing at intersections of main roads as people will collect them to do menial labouring jobs like gardening, rubbish removal, moving goods by loading and unloading at different locations and other labour intensive work. Though the work pays little (by Law the minimum wage must be paid but many of the ‘employers’ cannot afford to pay that in reality) and if as happens, the workers do not get the full amount, they still rely on this work to survive (and keep families alive) and the constant loss of electrical power means that this source of work is now very sporadic and cannot be semi relied upon. Nothing in the lives of those on the street can be relied upon apart from being continually in public with no privacy and the need to survive lawlessness, hunger, cold or over heating and remaining intact. So any work or income that can be semi relied upon is cherished and sought after greatly.

Street life is based on cash first and foremost, then goods and services (many street dwellers are semi-skilled artisans and some are professionals and have good skills learned on site) and of course, bodies, as the sale of flesh is a way that many street people, especially if addicted, can earn quickly and given that all of the substances and ‘pastimes’ to abuse are permanently available, temptation is always about, you do not have to look hard for it. The dealers know that people of the street deal in cash and that the addicts spend large amounts of cash which are large when compared to the incomes of most of the people on the street and if compared to the ordinary working class, many of whom are salaried. Survival on the street encompasses food, clothing, blankets, shelter, any re-saleable item and of course, hard cold cash. Weaponry is another matter entirely as if it is not bought (illegally naturally), then it is manufactured leading to extremely lethal items being available ( they can even be hired without any down-payment if they are to be used in a criminal act which leads to money coming in so payment is made after the action). There is without doubt a constancy of criminal behaviour on the street but that is also due to the fact that many people flow through an area daily offering new targets for mugging, selling drugs/sex or whatever, offering ‘help’ with strings attached, pickpocketing – still current- and other ‘business’ practices. The list stretches the imagination as there is always a seller if a buyer appears. The possibility of work far from being ignored is chased vigorously as it can lead to a more stable income stream even if only once or twice a week. So many of the people on the street start their day early and are located at intersections (often with traffic lights) waiting hopefully for a motorist to stop and offer them work. Patience pays off but hunger curtails it forcing the people waiting to find alternative sources of sustenance and by Thursday, the number of hopefuls waiting has diminished. Many find work by constantly moving around during the day, looking in different areas asking all and sundry if there is any work, food, help etc. It does pay off but very slowly and the despair becomes tangible when the numbers doing any of these actions increases dramatically. Those who beg and stand at different locations in some cases do not want to work as it would interfere with their addictive behaviours (gambling, drugs, etc.) and they do not admit to themselves or anyone else, that the truth is they find it very hard to maintain a time focused schedule other than on a casual basis where an hour or three do not matter. They know they can gain a fairly constant income as donors become regulars and they supplement their incomes by many activities, not all criminal and often time consuming for little monetary return as they still retain that aspect of us that still gets great pleasure from doing what we like.

The increasing homelessness globally is throwing up the fact that the many aspects of our societies, of our lives that we take for granted, are rapidly being eroded and cannot be fixed either quickly or permanently. Streets we entered happily without a thought, parks, green spaces (no matter how small) are being lived in, the volume of rubbish piles up and the vermin increase, health issues arise and there is no alternative on offer other than a draconian one instilling fear and forced relocation with the addition of poverty becoming a criminal offence. The questions arising from homelessness will not go away as the numbers increase and the system, the government, and civil society become increasingly overstretched and enter terminal decline due to lack of income, trained workers at all levels and the ever rising cost of providing items. They are already buckling under the strain in the USA, the UK, France and a lot of the EU let alone the Global South and other nations where they cannot deliver services fast enough or with the required amount of items to the majority of the people without cutting output by cutting costs with staff redundancies and reduced services and lesser amounts of items of lower cost and quality. The issue of homelessness affects us all and endangers our ideal of humanity, compassion and tellingly, the hard cold factual economic data showing that the cost of not solving it outweighs the long term benefits to society. But we are societies with no real desire to wait for the ‘long term’ benefits to arrive so the outcome for the homeless, the public, our societies and each and everyone of us though not predestined, is not at all rosy.

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