Homeless people are among the most vulnerable at the best of times and the recent announcement of a 21-day protective lockdown in South Africa raised the possibility of more danger for members of this community.
But, at least for a diverse group of 27 homeless people in a temporary shelter set up for this time in Port Elizabeth, the experience is bringing hope that they are at the beginning of an unexpected transformational journey.
In an interview yesterday, the shelter manager, Arno Bester, who was once on the streets himself, said the changes he has seen in people’s lives in less than two weeks “is nothing short of miraculous”.
And the key, he says, has been giving the people a new understanding of the word “love”.
“Saying ‘Jesus loves you’ had been made cheap by society. They hear it and say: ‘How does that help me?’ But we’ve been trying to show them what love looks like in action — to show them God’s heart for them and to impart a vision to them for their future,” he said.
With the lockdown set to end in just over a week he said the focus now was on a constructive exit strategy for the temporary shelter residents.
Bester’s own past journey of drug abuse landed him on the streets 10 years ago, despite having studied theology and qualifying as a Christian counselor. Hitting rock bottom forced him to make a critical choice and he chose to trust Jesus and live for Him and his life changed completely.
At the start of the lockdown he was approached by a Port Elizabeth businessman who asked him if he wanted to assist him with a temporary shelter he was setting up for homeless people in the city. Recognising the plight of street people at this time, the businessman began looking for space for a shelter. This proved more difficult than expected and he bought 50 mattresses and ordered bulk food, not knowing what would become of his efforts. Other people then started to come on board and they were offered space at a school near Walmer township, donations started to roll in and even the police assisted them in their mission of approaching people stranded on the streets.
Bester said that as a step of faith he resigned his job to take on his current mission of managing the temporary shelter. He recalls on the first night at the shelter, when he was left alone with the first seven residents, that he got on his knees and asked God to show him how to take good care of the sheep He had entrusted to him.
He said the 27 current residents — four women and 23 men — include people of different nationalities and races. Nine of them came in as a community: they had been living in a drainpipe in the Korsten area. He said the others were “mission station hoppers and addicts who were just stuck on the streets”.
Considering their diverse backgrounds, the pain and trauma they had all been through, the drug withdrawal process many of them had undergone at the shelter, and the “cabin fever” from having to stay together in one place, he said things have been going quite smoothly and many of the residents were blossoming.
He said he had introduced a lot of structure into the daily programme, including wake-up times, duty times, exercise sessions, daily Bible studies, Wednesday-evening community times and church on Sundays.
A woman who had been living in the Korsten drainpipe for a long time and whose children are in a children’s home had approached him and said she wanted to experience more of the kind of life he had been showing her and now believed that one day she could have a job, care for her children and live a good quality life.
A man who had relapsed after a period of rehabilitation and believed that he was destined to be on the street forever was serving as the chief chef in the kitchen. “He is one of the pillars in helping to run this place and he now has hope that he can make a new start.”
Only one person — a young addict — had disappeared from the centre soon after arrival. He was missing for five days but was back now after the businessman who initiated the project found him living in a dog kennel. “We have not given up on him and are doing our best to introduce him into a living relationship with the Lord,” he said.
Yesterday, Bester began one-on-one counselling sessions with residents with a view to addressing their personal situations and discussing their vision for the future. Only two of the eight people he spoke to individually yesterday said they would rather go back to the streets than make a new start in a stable living environment. “I am expecting many others will say ‘Yes’ to a new beginning,” he said.
Bester expressed great appreciation for the ongoing support of the businessman who initiated the shelter, various ministry leaders, and groups and individuals whose generous donations had ensured that they had all the food, bedding and toiletries they needed.
The businessman told Gateway News that he was currently in contact with various ministries and shelters with a view to ensuring that the temporary shelter residents would have places to live and start a new life at the end of the lockdown.
He would also like to leave the school, which had provided space for the temporary shelter, in a better state than it was at the start of the lockdown. It is in urgent need of building and fence repairs. Anybody who would like to assist with helping the school can contact Shaun at 082 566 2892.