We drive past a small boy begging on the side of the road. He must be about seven. The flow of passing cars marks the passage of time throughout his day. He stands on "his own two feet", all alone begging for change. Tentatively he brings his little brown cup to our car window. We give him what's left of a peanut butter smoothie and as the robot turns green, his small face glides by.
The sadness of the situation leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. There are too many children begging on the streets. It's a sad state of affairs when I know I can't give this little boy money as I don't know if he will use it for food or glue.
I cast my mind back to memories of being seven. Riding my bike, roller-skating. Whizzing up and down the ramps in our block of flats in Bellevue Johannesburg. My only association with glue was the Pritt in my Walton's stationery pack.
The little boy reminds me of a group of teenage boys that used to live on the streets of Highlands North. A group of boys that would man the robots at the corner of Louis Botha and Glenhove road. They had formed a network that would stand in the same place each day in a haze of memory and forgotten dreams. You could watch them sniffing glue on the side of the road at the end of their day. The routine of their lives as clockwork as a day job.
When I returned to Jozi to visit a few years later, I was waiting at the same spot for the robot to change. I recognised the one boy, now a man, waiting at the same corner, still begging. The flow of passing cars structuring the passage of years throughout his life. We grew up down the road from each other. I had a home, whereas he slept on the street. I wonder about his story and how he got there. I wonder about his parents if he has any, and most of all I wonder about his future.
I live in Sea Point now. There are a group of bergies who live across the road, they huddle together under the roof of a public building keeping warm under their box blankets. With the surrounding properties being sold in the millions and unobstructed sea views, most people could call where they stay prime real estate. I see them on Tuesday mornings going through the trash looking for food. I'm not sure how long they have been there, or how long they will stay but I know that each of these people has a story to tell.
Being homeless is being completely exposed to the elements. The natural elements as well as the elements of human nature.
On my way home from work, as I get off the highway, there are four people at the intersection. One lady sells The Big Issue. Another man sells Funny Money. There are two people begging. With rising food costs and increasing unemployment, it makes sense that the poor are getting poorer. The problem is that homeless people can make enough money to avoid starvation but not enough to change their situation.
I think about what it means to be homeless. To not have a safe protected space where you can lay your head down. I think about possibly being separated from family and friends. Losing all connections with a community. Not having access to basic human rights. Being completely exposed to the elements. The natural elements as well as the elements of human nature. You are at the mercy of other people's kindness or cruelty. Self-esteem knocked down by rolled up windows, and averted gazes. It must be hard beyond words.
Mandela said that "Poverty is not an accident, like slavery and apartheid it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings"
The reality is that we can't give money to every beggar but we can give beggars dignity and respect, as we would any other person. We can also give money to NGOs that can help. These are practical ways on how to help.
Real and lasting change can only occur if we help to empower people to help themselves. There's an NGO in Johannesburg that attempts to find beggars jobs. It not only helps beggars but skilled immigrants who are trying to find work. The organisation is called Second Chances, thinking back to the small seven-year-old begging on the corner I wonder whether some people even get the luxury of a first chance.