Homeless and ‘voteless’

Eight thousand out of the estimated 60 000 Delhi homeless, received their election identity cards on the 10th of April, 2014. For the first time in India’s history, the homeless can vote. Eight hundred and fourteen million people are eligible to vote, making it the world’s largest election to date, according to the BBC.

The election identity cards can open a bank account, allow free train services and cooking gas connections. Do the homeless in South Africa have the same benefits? Will the South African homeless vote in the upcoming elections on the 7th of May, 2014? Anthony Molyneaux heads out to the streets of Cape Town to figure out how the homeless feel about voting 20 years after democracy.

“The homeless are very eager to go and vote because they feel it is their democratic right. Particularly our black and coloured residents, they feel a little more encouraged to vote as it’s a practice they weren’t allowed before,” states Jerry Louw, manager at The Haven Night Shelter in Greenpoint in Cape Town.

The Haven’s vision, “No one should have to live on our streets,” lines their business card and Jerry has been involved in homeless shelters since 2003. “You do pick up that some people feel they aren’t accounted for and some feel, look what’s the point, I’m homeless, what’s the point of voting? But it’s misguided and we try and help them with information.”

Man in Cape Town city, sleeping alongside a busy street.

Man in Cape Town city, sleeping alongside a busy street.

The large cool cemented floors lead the way through the shelter. AB, a 30-something-year-old man with dark circles around his eyes and a slow drawl guides me through the bare halls of the residence where 100 otherwise-homeless people sleep. A large open plan eating area leads to the outdoor courtyard where a dozen of the residents are scattered in various reclined positions, one of the residents shifts his mangled mattress out of the sun.

AB is the field worker for Haven Night Shelter. His job is to hit the streets, locate homeless people and inform them about the options the city makes available to them.

The Haven has rehabilitative programmes in place to assist the residents. They’re assisted in gaining their Identity Documents [ID] in order to vote, a prerequisite to take part in the upcoming elections. They are also helped by social workers like Lucia Peterson in overcoming their troubles which include domestic violence and drug abuse.

“Yes, of course I’m voting,” Denise Nel, a 40-something-year-old lady, still in her narrow bed, states happily. She has been working in an initiative setup by Patricia de Lille for homeless people. “We’re being paid to clean the streets at night and I’ve been staying here [the Haven] for 6 months but I feel great because I’ve got a job. A lot of people here at Haven will go vote and I’m grateful for the government and the shelter for getting me a job and helping me.”

Haven gains its funding from the city of Cape Town and the National Lottery. Donations by large shopping chains allows the residents to eat fresh produce from nearby grocery stores. This is appreciated by most residents I speak with at the shelter and is one of the common reasons that lead to the general enthusiasm for voting.

But what about those even less fortunate? Those on the streets that cannot get a bed in a shelter as there are no vacancies (these shelters have a slow turnover and can only accommodate 95 people per night), no money (a bed costs R10 a night) or no assistance? Are they also excited about voting?

Man on train. Sleeping in a safe place when you are homeless is hard to find.

Man on train. Sleeping in a safe place when you are homeless is hard to find.

The 5 cent meal service offered in Cape Town’s city bowl is visited by predominantly homeless people; the people who don’t have the benefits of the shelters. The grassy patch opposite the brick-faced building is spotted with countless groups of ragged looking individuals waiting for their lunch.

Alwyn Pieterson, clad in a reflector vest and tattered brown jeans sits in the shade of a grocery store sign waiting for his first, and probably last, meal of the day. “A guy was stabbed here last year while in line. He tried to push in and was stabbed to death. But don’t worry you can still go, there’s a security guard here now,” he states with a mischievous grin.

“I’m not voting because I don’t have an ID.” Upon asking why he doesn’t try to get one he sneers, “I lost it when I first came to Cape Town. Now it costs me R270 to get my ID, I don’t have money for that.” Checking on the Department of Home Affairs website, a re-issuing of an ID actually costs R140 ($14) but this is still a lot of money for a man literally on the street.

A group of three sitting on the sun-laden grass embankment are not voting either. “We don’t have ID’s and don’t have money to get one.” When questioned what they think about the elections, the young lady named Lesley, lying against her boyfriend’s chest, barks “They’re corrupt. They promise things and don’t deliver. They’re racist and don’t care about us.” The group all nods in agreement.

A hard looking man with jail tattoos along his right arm sits in the shade of a small palm tree. His eyes stare toward the distant mountain. He too is not voting as he has no ID and has no motivation to get one.

Except for a few vague comments of racism and corruption, there seems to be a general knowledge of the importance of their vote. It seems the problem for the homeless, in terms of voting, isn’t apathy or indifference as much it is a lack of money and/or services. The homeless outside of the shelters require IDs, IDs require money and they have neither.

The issue is not so much in whether the South African homeless vote or not, it’s whether they have the facilities and funds to vote. For a lucky few in shelters like the Haven, assistance with funding for IDs and eliminating technicalities motivates the homeless to vote.

The majority on the street however, have no assistance. They can survive by the generosity of 5c meals yet when R140 is needed to attain an ID, this proves to be too much. Why would they save the R10 they’ve scrounged for the whole day to pay for an ID? The thought of voting gets lost in their survival from day to day.

Homeless man busking in tunnel. On average buskers make R5-R10 ($1) a day. Re-issuing of an ID costs R140 ($14) in South Africa

Homeless man busking in tunnel. On average buskers make R5-R10 ($1) a day. Re-issuing of an ID costs R140 ($14) in South Africa

Many homeless living on the streets will miss out on the opportunity to lay down their mark but not due to their perception of being let down by government. It is because they don’t have the resources to get what they need to vote. A larger social issue is raised. The shelters are progressing and rehabilitating the homeless but do we have enough shelters for our ever growing homeless, ‘voteless’ people?

India has introduced the free of charge election identity document for their less fortunate. Perhaps this idea, implemented in South Africa in election years, might assist in the voting of the large number of homeless people who go otherwise unnoticed and unaccounted for.