[notice]Gateway News volunteer reporter, Debbie Hemmens, spent a night on the streets of Hillbrow, experiencing life as a homeless person. She shares how much it has impacted her view on the impoverished and what we can do to help.[/notice]An overnight sleep-out, aimed at creating awareness for the homeless and destitute, took place on Sunday, June 15 on the grounds of the Church of Peace – Lutheran Church in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Close to 100 members of various churches around Johannesburg and Pretoria shared the night with the many homeless people who had been invited for the evening.
Event organisers, Nigel Branken and his wife Trish, moved into a flat in Hillbrow a few years prior in order to make a difference in the city. Even after being held at gunpoint a mere five weeks after moving to the area, Branken took the streets again and went to the very spot he was held up to pray for peace and a turnaround. The family has since handed out food regularly and built relationships with the various street vendors and homeless community in the Hillbrow area, including drug dealers and prostitutes.
Their heart for the overnight sleep-out event was to focus on shifting perspectives on how homeless people are viewed and treated. It was also to create a platform for those sleeping on the streets to share their stories, what their needs are, and how others could help them take the next step forward towards a better life.
The programme ran from 6pm and included a supper, various people reading through the Sermon on the Mount, Communion, singing around the fires and a walk around the streets of Hillbrow. Various stations were set up for reflection and journaling and people were given a chance to be part of a video blog which would be uploaded to YouTube.
“We are a city divided along racial, class and other lines.” said Branken who shared his dream of a new world where there would be genuine equal friendships, where we care enough for each other and share our possessions. He encouraged people to go across barriers on the evening and engage and listen to their stories, and share your own story.
One of the homeless men, simply known as Frans, shared his story of how his father left home when he was 6 years old. By the age of 15 he went looking for work on the streets of Hillbrow. He found bad company and did bad things including fraud and drugs which landed him in prison a few times. He was introduced to God and schooling which turned his life around for the better. He met Nigel a few years back, was reunited with his family and although he is still homeless, is now working again and at the same time helping people who live on the streets. Frans was one of the guides around the streets of Hillbrow and showed everyone the public bath house which has been there for years and allows homeless people to bath and wash their clothes for free. There is not always enough hot water for all, so you have to work out when the best times are to go and bath.
I chatted to a lady who lives in a flat with three children and works very far away in the South of Johannesburg. She has a hard life with heart problems to complicate issues. We exchanged numbers to keep in touch and I was moved to help find her a job closer to home, which would ease her exorbitant transportation costs.
I also chatted with a German student who is involved in a mission on the same property. My comment to him that our country has come a long way was met with disagreement. He said that the divide between those who have and those who don’t is still too great.
Cold and uncomfortable
It was a really cold and uncomfortable sleep on the ground and I don’t believe I slept at all, but am really grateful for the experience. As I was rolling up my sleeping bag with bleary eyes and shivering body, I was so aware of those who do this every morning without the possibility of a cup of tea or a shower to warm them and be clean for the day.
Branken mentioned in his closing talk that the point of the evening was not to go home and be grateful for your warm bed, tea and shower but rather to significantly change how we live. We can acknowledge and love those on the streets instead of rolling up our windows, locking our doors and ignoring the destitute who beg. We can also do our part by supporting those who are out there on the front lines feeding, loving and caring for homeless people.
As Christians we do not have an excuse to not love and care for the poor and orphaned of this world. You will hear many people say they love Jozi and want to engage with the city, but that statement needs to include all peoples of the city, and until those conversations happen, there will not be a complete loving of the city.
Leviticus 19: 9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.” (NIV Life Application Bible)
The law was for the protection for the poor and the alien and a reminder that God owned the land; the people were only caretakers. May the laws of our land change to look after the poor, but in the meantime God still desires generosity. In what way can you leave the ‘edges of your field” for those in need?