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If you google “sleeping under the stars”, you will find a ton of results like “10 Dreamy Ways to Sleep Under the Stars” and “Amazing Places to Sleep under the Stars”.  It all sounds to adventurous and romantic!  But for many people living in the suburbs of Cape Town, sleeping under the stars is not an exceptional adventure, but the harsh daily reality of their lives.  This week I spoke to one such individual, a 35-year old man called Trevor.

Trevor has been an unofficial resident of Kenilworth since the middle of 2019.  His “home” is a space behind a particular bush on the outskirts of the suburb.  This bush is also the hiding place for all his earthly belongings – some blankets, a few clothes and some odds and ends. 

Trevor lives with anxiety that his hiding place will be discovered, perhaps by other people living on the streets, and that his stuff will be stolen.  After he had accepted my invitation to a meal and conversation the other evening, I waited while he meticulously rolled up his blankets and stuffed them, together with his other possessions, into nooks and crannies of the vegetation.  He then carefully surveyed the result to check that the items were suitably camouflaged before leaving.[1]

That was not his only anxiety of the evening.  When he heard that we would be eating at a local pub and restaurant, he was concerned that he would be chased away by management.  He informed me that street people are not welcome in the local food establishments.  As it turned out, we experienced no difficulties, probably due to the fact that I was accompanying him.  We had a great evening, with Trevor sharing some of his life story with me.

Trevor has lived on the streets since his early teens.  At that time he left home to gain greater independence, which was especially important to him given that his mother lost her job as a waitress and had two younger siblings to take care of.  He joined a youth action group, called It’s Your Move – an initiative of Molo Songololo, a child rights organisation based in Cape Town.  This provided him with exposure to other young activists, and exposed him to a broad range of ideas.  It was a good period of his life, but he also prioritised these activities above formal schooling, and he dropped out of high school in Grade 10.

Since then, Trevor has survived by odd jobs and temporary employment here and there, sometimes with the support and mentorship of people he has encountered along the way.  He fondly remembers a stint at a bookshop in Rondebosch from about 2003 to 2007, where he worked in dispatch and interacted with the customers. 

His work there had a profound impact on his life, as he developed a passion for reading.  His most loved book of all time is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, but he enthusiastically names some of his other favourites.  These include autobiographies (Charlene Smith’s Proud of Me), motivational books (Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention) and fantasy (Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Unfortunately, the book shop subsequently closed and he lost this job. 

At times, he has stayed in night shelters, moving between the shelters in Cape Town CBD, Claremont, Wynberg and Fish Hoek.  But his stays in the shelters are dependent on funding being available.  There are also limits on the duration that one can stay in the shelters, to ensure that more people are able to benefit from the limited available accommodation.  Furthermore, Trevor says that life in the shelters can be very rough and that it is easy to get involved in the wrong crowd or to develop infections.  For all of these reasons, a patch of ground behind a bush is, for now, the lesser of two evils.

While Trevor still has contact with his family in Nyanga, he does not depend on them for support.  He learned early on that he must look after himself, and he describes this as a source of personal dignity.  It makes him happy to be independent.  His dream is to have his own place, to get a permanent job and to work hard for himself.  He says that he reminds himself to dream about small things at a time, so that they have a chance of becoming reality.

[1] When I went to find Trevor two days later to show him a draft of the blog, his hiding place had been evacuated.  I found him in the park, sitting next to a bundle of his possessions tied in a blanket.  He had been chased from his sleeping spot by the police.

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