Poverty came knocking

It’s already been some weeks that we have been living in Cape Town. 9 students in a really nice house, with a swimming pool and so on and soforth. We been traveling out into the townships, working and learning about social entrepreneurship. One day it rung on the door, and I rushed to open. I didn’t bother checking the monitor, because we do have a street cam.

Suddenly, I found myself face to face with a guy with a black bag asking if I could let him in. There are two gates between our house and the street, one on the main entrance, another one on the outer wall which surrounds the house. All of us living in the house have clickers which open the metal gates with a simple click. Between me and that bearded bloke was two gates, and I had to press the right button as to not let him completely in. Off course he probably didn’t have any intentions of doing anything wrong, but I didn’t want to let him into the courtyard. My pondering on which button to press while I smalltalked seemed like a small eternity.

I did press the right button, letting me out of the house to move a little closer. The guy standing outside the fence was a bearded guy with a black sports bag, and he didn’t seem poor at all. He boasted something about working for some aid thing, but at the same time I could see that he wanted to peddle useless stuff. A mere piece of cloth designed to wipe glasses was something he planned to charge R30 for. I said that I wasn’t prepared to pay anything for something like that, and as I was turning he called after me, “how about a small donation then?” Normally I wouldn’t have bothered turning back, but there’s something about being confronted outside one’s home. So, I felt truly compelled to turn around.

Reaching into my pocket I pulled out something like R2.50, which is like almost nothing. By then there was already another outstreched hand coming through the bars, a black man who didn’t say anything. “Is this guy with you?” I asked and the white bearded guy promptly replied, “no.” So, I ended up giving both of them a R2.50 & R2 respectively. The black guy mumbled and clearly mimicked that he would very much like a blanket to keep himself wam. I had to draw the line there, and refused the request.

Even though my monetary loss was next to nothing, it still felt like a strong loss. My convinctions towards poor people is that I give no alms whatsoever. Aid pacifies the recipient, whether on large or small scale. Off course there are many cases where the poor have no chances at getting a normal job because they are disabled in some way, or just too old. When it comes to regular healthy adults, they do have oppurtunities to claw their way into a sustainable livelihood. Kids are another group which I’m reluctant to help, who’s to know that they’re not being sent out by their parents or something down that alley?

Following the incident I had at the gates, I’ve always been checking the monitor to see who’s at the gates before opening up the main door. It eventually led to an embarrasing moment, where I gave our cleaning lady quite the interrogation on her first day of work before one of my friends intervened and said that she was expected. Luckily she didn’t bear a grudge.

Other people in the house have also been confronted by beggars at the main gate, and they have felt equally troubled as me in turning them away. Most of them know exactly what to say, in order to make an emotional impact.

It isn't easy for the homeless people to ask either... Credit: vanswearingen

I came across a poster at the local Spar: “Give a hand up, not a hand out.” This is a campaign initiated by the local community here in Observatory.

“The idea is to discourage people from giving cash handouts, which usually benefit local bottlestores.” Source: www.obz.org.za

There is in fact a safety net for homeless people. Local shelters offer warm meals and such, in addition to programs designed to get homeless people of the streets. The bottleneck is that many homeless like to drink or do other substances, and don’t want to give that up. Giving up the bottle is a main criteria for participation in the shelters’ programs.

It’s good to see campaigns like “Give a hand up, not a hand out.” That hasn’t given up on the homeless people, and at the same time tries to break the spirals which keep the homeless on the streets.