MES (Mould Empower Serve), a Hillbrow-based organisation, has run awareness campaigns that highlight the issue of homelessness in the past. Part of their campaigns has been to challenge the public to experience some of the obstacles homeless people experience on a daily basis. We asked MES to tell us more about the issue of homelessness.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about homeless people?
The public tends to forget that homeless people are just like you and me. They have the same desires, dreams, hopes and everyday needs we have and take for granted. Homeless people are just like us, only in a very unfortunate position.
What advice would you give someone wanting to help a homeless person?
Money only solves the problem temporarily. Get to know the charities in your area addressing social relief, homelessness, shelters and skills training. Support the particular charity in your area. Refer a homeless person to such an organisation for assistance. The road to healing and rehabilitation of a homeless person is a long journey with many ups and downs – there are no quick fixes. We need people to realise this and commit long term.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the issue of homelessness in your time working at MES?
People realise it is a problem but chose the easy way out. Giving a R5 at a robot is easier than committing time, effort and/or finances to the right charity. From the homeless side – the fact that a homeless person will still smile and tell you what a great day it is, makes you feel you missed the boat. Even though they have almost nothing, in a material sense, homeless people to me, seem happier than people who have more material privilege.
What are some policy-based changes you would advise government to implement, to alleviate the issue of homelessness?
Homelessness is a combination of a lack of education, jobs and housing shortages. All three issues need to be better-addressed. The government is willing to sponsor skills training but not accommodation. This is a huge issue because where does a homeless person stay while they are on training? With accommodation comes the need for food. How do you make money if you are in training in order to buy food? Housing and feeding someone is not cheap. The costs to NGOs are huge and government is choosing not to address the accommodation issue. Homelessness is an all too familiar issue to South Africans, we see it every day and don’t feel much, not because we don’t want to but just because it is part of our lives. Just as we educate the public on health issues, keeping your environment clean etc. we also need to educate the general public on homelessness. Give the public options on how to get involved responsibly. I would like to see a government campaign focusing on the issue and giving solution and options to the public.
There’s a perception that homelessness is an ongoing problem which will never be “solved” (for want of a better word) – especially in a major city such as Johannesburg. What would your response be to this?
The perception seems accurate BUT Johannesburg is a city filled with migrants and immigrants from all over Africa and South Africa, promising a better future and work for all. The problem can be solved (referring to question 4) and we at MES wish to see every South African employed and living in decent conditions. But we are still very far from this dream as our nation still deals with huge social and racial issues. Most of the men we work with come from single parent families (mostly mothers or grandmothers are the head of the family). We are working with broken men, who do not know their own responsibility towards the person next to them or the family they have. If we can heal and create healthy (emotionally and psychologically) families, we will have men and women who will know where they belong, who they are, and most importantly, that they are loved by the people around them.
Do you have any stories of how MES has helped people?
Michael Peterson has a long history with MES, here’s his story:
I was born on 13 September 1974 in Coronation hospital in Johannesburg. I grew up in a physically abusive family. I was very young and could not handle the pain so I ran away from home. That’s when I ended up on the streets of Hillbrow. This was in 1991. I was walking around the streets of Hillbrow looking and hoping for something. I was not even sure what I was looking for. I just did not want to go back home.
On a cold day I was sitting around a fire with some other street children. Some white ladies approached us – we did not know how to treat them. They asked us if we knew Jesus. Some of us said yes, and some said no. They explained to us who Jesus is and that he died on the cross for our sins. They asked us if we had food. We said no, and that we were going through the dustbins to find food. They then told us they could help us with food and clothes – but we did not believe them. They said they were from MES (back then it was called MES Aksie). But we did not go with them. We slept in the street that night and the next morning they came back and said we should come with them. They gave us tea and breakfast and gave us clothes to wear. Then they said we should go back at 5 o’clock. We did, and they gave us food again. They promised us that they would open a shelter for us. In 1993, they opened a shelter for us. They even took some of us back to school but I did not finish my schooling.
The people of MES were like angels. They gave love like at home that my parents never gave me. At home it was really, really bad – I’m not sure why. I was staying in the shelter and then I ended up in the streets again because I did not cooperate with MES rules. I ended up in crime and in prison. I was sentenced 6 months for car theft. I came out of jail and I went back to MES. They still welcomed me and gave me another chance. They never told me to go away. Their arms were always open for me. By now I could not go back to school, but Francois Pienaar (who also works at MES) helped me with a job.
I was working at a garage in Auckland Park but I ended up drinking and doing drugs again. Again I ended up on street and did crime. Then in 2001, I was arrested for a sexual crime. By now I was 26 years old. I ended up in jail again and was then sentenced 14 years for rape. So, again in prison for a second time, I never had any visitors. I was too scared to contact my family. They would beat me up so I just kept quiet. I served all 14 years. I came out last year May, 2015. So now I am 40 years old. I never had any visitors for 14 years. I was in Johannesburg and Pretoria Central prisons, and was also taken to a prison in Cullinan, Zonderwater. In Cullinan they had workshops and other programmes for prisoners. I did some of the workshops. My other problem was that I never had an ID, and I could not get one since I had no contact with my family. But some of my friends who were also in prison told me my parents moved but since I had no contact with them since 1991, I did not know where to find them.
Last year (2015), I came straight to MES. They welcomed me again with open arms and I told them that I needed a job. I don’t want to be part of crime anymore. They said there is a project called GROW. You work for 4 hours and you get R50 for 4 hours. Rhee told me about GROW and then he took me to Pieter Bosch. They welcomed me and now I am still in the project. GROW has really helped me a lot. Even my friends on the street say they can see a difference in me. I’m staying at Ekhaya shelter and I am paying for the shelter. But I was still struggling because sometimes I did not have a shift at GROW and then I had to sleep on the streets again. But now I’m cleaning the shelter so I stay at the shelter. I am also working at Madulammoho housing company now. I work for 8 hours and for me it’s better. I do painting and maintenance work and I am dedicated.
My dream as a child was to be a lawyer and have a wife and children. I don’t want to be a millionaire. I just want to provide for my needs. GROW is a start for me. I know myself better than any other person. When I was still young and curious, friends misled me with drugs. I have to think if I want to see my family. I tried to forget but I have wounds, emotional wounds which I did not deal with in prison. I just tried to survive and get myself out.
Want to know more about MES and the people they serve? Watch this video.