GEORGE NEWS - Dear George Community and George Municipality, the Homeless need your help.
Are you sure that you have enough savings for your retirement? How sure are you that your children will take care of you in tough times? Sometimes life takes a turn, maybe a nasty divorce, and all of a sudden you are alone with little to nothing to your name, rapidly heading towards homelessness in your old age.
This was the story that Deirdre, who lives at the George Night Shelter, shared with me.
In 2020, as part of a community project in my last year of medicine, I listened to the stories of eight homeless people in George. I aimed to understand what needs were not met by the homeless community and what factors had led them into homelessness.
It soon became clear that homelessness is not simply a matter of poverty but a complex issue of misfortune, family conflict, substance abuse, domestic violence and poor social development.
With each life story that I share of a homeless person, I wish to focus on one contributing factor and share with you some of the research around that factor. In this case, I will be looking at how the community and the government treat the elderly.
If you would like to read my first life story focusing on alcohol and drug abuse, my second focusing on domestic violence, my third focusing on mental illness, or the previous one on family conflict, please see the links to the articles below.
The stories of the homeless that I collected as well as the research surrounding it are freely available by request per my e-mail address below.
Please use these stories to demand more from your municipality. YOU need to be the voice of the vulnerable and disenfranchised.
Deirdre is 74 years old. She has a limp that makes moving around in the shelter very difficult for her. After getting divorced and alienated from her sons, she spent years moving from friends to friends of friends to strangers’ houses offering to clean and cook for them in exchange for rent.
Ultimately she ran out of connections. She has had to leave her two cats behind and she misses them very much.
“I was adopted at nine months.… You see, my [adopted] mother had a daughter with polio and back then they thought that if you had one child with polio, you may get another so that’s why I was adopted. My sister, Denie, would say to me, “Mommy doesn’t love you. You are only adopted.”
She used to hit me with her hairbrush when my mother was out. While we still lived in Pretoria, when I was very small, they told me that I had liver problems. I didn’t go to school for six months and every day a sister would visit and give me an injection and I would cry. I wasn’t allowed to drink fizzy drinks or eat cream. To this day I am on tablets for liver trouble.
We moved from Pretoria to Warm Baths when I was around Grade 1. My mother was the first nursing sister there. She divorced my father. My stepfather molested both of us. She was 13 years old and I was five years younger.
We were too scared to tell my mother, because my mother and him both used to drink and she wouldn’t have believed us anyway.
When I was older, my sister went to stay with friends of my mother. She used to come back once a month. One day she came and left a letter on my mother’s pillow. So later my mother calls me into the room and she has a gun in her hand and she says, “I am going to shoot you.”
I ran out into the street and she got into the car and followed me and tried to run me down and kill me or shoot me because, according to her, I made her daughter pregnant. She went totally nuts!
Then a couple of months later my sister came back to Warm Baths and I used to pinch food for my sister and go give it to her because they were still struggling with money. She was mad enough with her to not give her food.
My mother then sent me to boarding school, because according to her I somehow made my sister pregnant... My mother had told the nuns I was never allowed off the premises. I was there for two weeks and the one nun asked me to go shopping for her and when I said that my mother forbade it she responded with, “Well the gates are open anyhow. You could walk out anytime.”
So I did the shopping in town for her and so more nuns started to ask me to go out for them and they said, “Just don’t tell your mother we let you out.”
The joke is, I ended up being a prefect. My mother never visited me there, she would drive straight past to visit my sister. One of the local people would take me home for the weekend, because my mother would never want to come get me and they just said it was nonsense.
Being married with children
"Once I finished school I started to work in a bank and I had a lot of friends. I have been married three times. My first husband, I divorced him because he was having affairs with a whole lot of women. My first child I had at 22 years old, which the Queen’s Council for the divorce said was old to have your first child.
That man wanted me to divorce him because he didn’t want his name dragged through the mud. I had two other boys from that marriage too. The third man I married, he liked dagga and he was a drinker and he used to beat me up and I vowed I would never get married again. They owe me money and I never got it. I have been single now for 27 years.
My oldest lives in Cape Town. When I got divorced the last time I moved in with my eldest in Cape Town. I don’t know what happened but he just got mad at me for some reason. My grandchildren became too fond of me, his wife was too fond of me and he told me to go. I am not in contact with him now.
So he makes a heck of a lot of money. While I was here at the shelter, there is a law in the country that if you don’t have enough money you can take your children to court and they must pay for you. But he doesn’t want to help me. He says I must take care of myself.
My middle son is in America in Colorado. My youngest is in Australia and he and his wife are brilliant.
I have a son in Colorado Springs and I have visited him four times. The last time, the shelter helped me. They helped convert my money to dollars. He is a brilliant boy. He was fixing people’s computers in the basement area and he was working from home at that time so it was nice to spend time with him.
He had two old phones that he wasn’t using so he gave me one of the old phones and I used to have WhatsApp and I would correspond with my youngest son and my grandchildren in Australia. When I told him I was coming back to SA to get my tablets, he was furious and he said he would hide me.
He said, “You haven’t had tablets for three months and you have been fine.” He told his wife I am lying and stuff. When I left, he said, “You leave that phone here.” The numbers of my son in Australia were on that phone and now I don’t have contact with them anymore. When I came back, I tried to call my son in America, and he blocked me.
Living with friends and strangers
There was a woman I stayed with that I met at a Fisheries and she knew I was looking for a place so she gave me a room. And then one night on a Saturday we sometimes have people over and this man Lee was there one time. So I met Lee there and he would invite me for walks and he was a Skipper so he would tell me about the boats and I got to know him better.
He then let me stay with him there in Great Brak and I cleaned his place for him. But Lee kept getting drunk, and falling over and breaking furniture. After seven years I knew I had had enough of him quite frankly.
Anyway, so then I found a place just up the road from here actually. The man who owned the place, I said to him he is charging me so much rent and if it rains I sit on the toilet and I get wet, water comes down the walls and my cushions get wet and everything.
So I told him I had had enough and that he needed to do something about this so he told me, “I tell you what I am going to do about it, you have one hour to get out.” My friend Sandy visited then and she made this arrangement with a man she knew who came to meet me and he said that I can rent a room from them.
It was very nice because I had the bathroom right there. I had two cats, my Chloe and Zoe. They learnt how to get around the place and how to get downstairs there and outside. I used to pay rent for the room and buy and cook my own food.
Anyway, one day they decided that they wanted to stay there alone and I had two weeks to find a place. I walked all over, but I couldn’t find a place that I could afford. So I had packed and he just walked in one day and grabbed my boxes. My cats ran out because of the fright.
He just threw the boxes into the car, he had spoken to the night shelter manager and said he would pay for me. He never paid. And I had no money so I was a month behind the rent costs here at first. That man forced me here. I wasn’t about to bring my cats here. They don’t know where I am. So now I know where my cats are - in Great Brak again.
Life at the shelter
I have been at the shelter for three years now. Two women told me to hang up sheets on the line and I was told by another one not to because I was so much older, already in my 70s. Anyway, I started and I sort of fell and they had no right to tell me what to do. But the next day, I started sweating down my face and another person came down and said that I needed the ambulance because she thinks I am having a heart attack now.
So they caused that heart attack for me. I went to George hospital and there were three doctors there and, I tell you, they saved my life…
I am 74 and I get an old age pension. On the third, the shelter go take us to get our money and they give us a chance to shop too. That’s how good the people here are to us. I pay R750 a month to stay here. The minute I draw out and I get back to the shelter, I come and pay them that R750.
In the morning we get two sandwiches and a coffee. Then at 10 o’clock, the people who stay in the shelter during the day get another tea and a sandwich. Lunch at 12. For supper, three days of the week are soup and then the other nights are cooked food.
My priority now is to get my cats back. The Rosemoor Old Age Home have these little flats, but now of course no one is moving anywhere. And I am not happy here with some of the people.”
About elderly neglect in general
According to estimates from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2015, South Africa has the highest percentage of older people in Africa (8,7%). This percentage is expected to increase rapidly to 17,4% by 2050 due to increased lifespan and decreased birth rate.
Currently, South Africa’s policies focus largely on the youth and youth development and not on the needs of the increasing numbers of elderly people.
It is not only the government that tends to put aside the elderly, but communities too. Modern society diminishes the socio-economic contribution of the elderly.
There is an expectation from the youth that the older generation need to step aside and make space for the younger generation. Instead of remaining economically active, financial dependence, lack of quality of life and a secluded, simpler existence are often the result.
Economic exclusion and social isolation are dis-empowering. This sense of powerlessness is amplified when the elderly is denied the right to participate in decisions affecting their own life.
In a society where the elderly is no longer recognised, economic marginalisation takes many forms. For some, like Deirdre, access to one of a few governmental facilities may prevent a life on the street.
Others have little to no choice in sharing a meagre pension looking after grandchildren, often orphaned, and unemployed family members, hoping for some care in return when they themselves can no longer provide. For a selected few, the children may be able to afford a well-run elderly care facility, often neglected by hands-on loving care from their own children.
Given a bleak economic forecast amidst the radicalisation of the demands of the youth, the voice of the marginalised elderly, despite their increase in numbers, may be silenced altogether.
Institutionalised elderly care facilities in our country are largely insufficient. The government pension is hopelessly inadequate. The lack of a safety net for the elderly in our country is an indication of a society viewing life as purely utilitarian and disposable. Restoring dignity and returning to our common humanity are vital building blocks to ensure a social justice agenda that includes the aged.
Access to basic physical and mental health, healthy food, safe housing and elderly-friendly public transport, walkways and leisure spaces should be an integrated community concern.
While government will need to invest urgently in more subsidised 24-hour care facilities for the elderly, much can be done through local municipalities and community partnerships to ensure holistic solutions to homelessness and elderly neglect as one of its contributing factors.
Please help support this cause. For the full stories and research, contact Dr Ellen-Marie Trautmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to my mother, Elna Trautmann, for editing this article and the others so beautifully.
1. Roets L, Botha A, Greeff M, Human SP, Strydom H, Martha JW, et al. A synthesis of homelessness in South Africa: a rapid critical appraisal. Development Southern Africa. 2016; 33(5): 613-627. Available here.
2. Cross C, Seager JR. Towards identifying the causes of South Africa’s street homelessness: some policy recommendations. Development Southern Africa. 2010; 27(1): 143-158. Available here.
3. National Coalition of the Homeless, Washington, DC. Homelessness among the elderly persons. 2009. Available here.
4. Samson Institute for Ageing Research. Putting older people on the agenda in South Africa. Available here.
- Family conflict and homelessness
- Mental illness and homelessness
- Stop women and children fleeing unsafe homes
- Homeless need your help
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