Sometimes it takes an effort to listen to the stories of the destitute people who take refuge from the streets in the Metro Evangelical Services (MES) shelter in Korsten, Port Elizabeth, says administrator Ian Landman.
But every one of the homeless people who ends up in this shelter for any length of time has a story that he or she would like somebody to listen to, he says.
Indeed, during the hour or so I spent interviewing Landman I heard both tragic and heart-warming stories about some of the people he has listened to during his three years as the father figure in this rambling double storey building that squats on a drab inner city block.
Landman himself has a story. His career as a financial adviser for a bank came to a sudden end when he had a heart attack and several bypass operations, which left him bedridden for two and a half years.
“By the grace of God” he says he recovered enough to work again and out of gratitude he desired to work somewhere where he could make a positive difference in people’s lives. Three years ago he saw a church notice about Gauteng-based Christian, social development organisation, MES wanting volunteers to help start a shelter in PE . He applied and has been with MES ever since.
“It is a privilege to be involved,” says Landman, who is married with a son completing a hospitality qualification and twin daughters in matric.
He believes that there are many opportunities for Christians in Port Elizabeth to support the MES vision of bringing relief to homeless people by getting personally involved “where the tackie hits the tar”. These opportunities range from “adopting” a resident, cooking meals, taking-in and washing bedding, or helping out with various hands-on building improvement and decor projects. By “adopting” residents he means engaging with them on a personal level, for instance by visiting once a month, phoning weekly to see how they are and providing small gifts, like deodorant for women.
“It means a lot for them to know there is somebody out there who knows about them,” he says.
MES provides overnight shelter accommodation for 80 destitute people, and also runs a daily weekday soup kitchen in the area and a soup kitchen in Red Location which caters for elderly people and Aids orphans. Working age residents have to be out of the building during the day during the week. All residents are supposed to pay R20 per day for their food and accommodation but about 40 per cent cannot afford to pay anything.
The goal of the shelter project is to try and reconnect people with their families and to get them back into some or other form of employment.
“We have had some success stories. We have placed about 20 people in jobs and they are now renting their own places,” he says. But he points out that this is a paltry success rate when measured against the approximately 1 000 people who have been through the shelter.
Way of life
“The problem is that for most of the homeless people, it is a way of life that is very difficult to change,” he says. A number of hardened street people do not even come to the shelter because they do not want to be subject to its rules and discipline.
Many of the people who arrive at the shelter are drug and alcohol abusers, although there is a growing number of people — especially elderly people — who are there simply as a result of desperate poverty.
The Christian message of hope is offered to residents through preaching, bible studies, discipling and counselling but it is not forced on any one. He also hopes that the addition of a fulltime social worker to the staff, which was imminent at the time I interviewed him, would add a fruitful dimension of skills training to the shelter programme.
Landman says that as far as possible he tries to make the shelter as much like home as possible as it is the only home the residents have. “As far as food is concerned our approach is that if it is not good enough for me to eat it is not good enough for them.”
But he says that many street people are “ruthless, addicted, without conscience and psychotic” and hence the shelter has to adopt strict rules of conduct and discipline. Residents must realise that if they keep on breaking rules they will not be allowed to stay. Over the past three years the worst drug and alcohol abusers have been weeded out and everybody who checks in knows the boundaries.
He says the current tough economic times have created a vicious cycle that directly affects the shelter. Firstly, it results in reduced income from donors. And secondly it results in more homeless people on the streets — including elderly people who own homes but cannot afford to pay for rates, electricity and food. He says at 80 residents the shelter is full. They have plans to increase the capacity to 120 people but currently they turn away four to seven people daily .
In one case residents found an elderly couple living in their car in a parking lot. The wife was dying of cancer. Although they were full, they squeezed the couple in, temporarily accommodating them in a bathroom.
Four months ago he wanted to evict a woman who was abusing alcohol. The only reason he did not was because she was pregnant. The next morning the woman gave birth to a beautiful baby.
“She is a wonderful mother to the child. But the tragedy is it is her fifth child. The welfare have taken away three of them and she is left with her baby and a son of five.”
Landman says that he has found that the best way to minister to his destitute charges is by sitting on their beds and listening to their stories. Stories like the former 100m sprint champion who started drinking after he stopped running. The apartheid era security policeman who drinks to forget the horrific things he once did under orders. The ladylike ex teacher who started drinking whiskey like water after two divorces. The retrenched man who was taken in with his wife and children despite the fact that he couldn’t pay anything towards his shelter rent: who later confided he had been about to take his own life. The woman who was brought in by police after she was beaten senseless by her husband and who brought her sewing kit and now makes cushions for the shelter. Women who were left holding babies by the lovers they met on MXit and for whom they had left their spouses.
Some of the stories are more uplifting. The retrenched man who was taken in found a job and he and his family still live at the shelter in a special “family” room. A well-educated woman who once owned a house in Summerstrand arrived at the shelter in January last year in a down-and-out condition as a result of drugs and alcohol abuse. Through lots of grace and hard work she overcame the abuse and she is now a happily employed resident staff member.
And the story that brings the most satisfaction to Landman is of a 20-year-old youth, Johannes, who arrived two years ago as a destitute orphan. He worked hard in the shelter kitchen and despite having left his special school after Grade 7 he was admitted to the Port Elizabeth College as a culinary student — and he is doing very well.
How does Johannes’ success make Landman feel?
“He is like a child to me. I go to his parent-teacher meetings. This is not work: this is not a job . There is something much more involved here and I don’t know really how to describe it.”
Anybody who is interested in supporting the work of the MES Shelter can call Ian Landman at 041-451 0398.