A moment of rude awakening, perhaps the covid-19 restrictions can reshape policies and the response to homelessness in South Africa. 

The onset of the level five lockdown brought about a wave of frenzy in March 2020, which saw people panic-buying groceries. For the homeless youth of South Africa, however, this panic is nothing out of the ordinary.

While there is no exact estimate representing how many people are homeless in South Africa, homelessness has been a prevalent issue for the country for years. Studies done by Human Science Research Council and Ikhaya Lami: Understanding Homelessness in Durban estimate the homeless population to be between 100 000 and 200 000, and most are youths aged 19-34 respectively.

The major pickle that faces this population is their struggle to access food, making them vulnerable to food insecurity. Food security, as per the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, occurs when all people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

This is not the case for the majority of homeless youth. The result: growing levels of malnutrition among this population.

These youths are most vulnerable to malnutrition, according to a study in the Internal Journal of Adolescence and Youthas a result of food insecurity. The change from teen to adulthood is when the body is most at risk of disease, needing a higher nutrient intake.

Malnutrition is when people are not getting enough of what they need from their food, Elmaré Theron, a dietician at Witkoppen Clinic, tells Wits Vuvuzela. This can be as a result of not having enough food or having too much of the wrong food. There are some tell-tale signs that a person is not getting enough nutrients (what you need to be healthy) from their food. These include muscle loss, wasting, sparse and discoloured hair, flaky skin and bleeding gums.

A balanced diet includes food from all food groups, namely fruit, vegetables, protein, carbohydrates and milk products. But this might not be the most affordable and easily accessible diet. In those cases, Theron suggests looking at cheaper sources such as porridge, legumes and so on.

The homeless and hungry wait their turn to be fed every Wednesday afternoon on Simmonds Street, Johannesburg by Beloved Sons Ministries, Centurion.


According to Theron, HIV (with high viral load and/or other complications) and TB are diseases common among homeless youth because of malnutrition.

Scarcity of food means homeless youth are more susceptible to diseases such as HIV or TB and also crime, use of substances and survival sex.

“Limited food access aggravates the public health crisis as a whole. Hungry people suffer from low mood and depression and cannot ‘see a way out.’ Alternatively, they lose their sense of ethics; cannot distinguish right from wrong and turn to small criminal acts, which in time turn into being full-blown criminal,” Theron tells Wits Vuvuzela.

The Homeless youth’s perspective  

Wits Vuvuzela spoke to four homeless youths in Johannesburg, all of them experiencing inconsistent access to food and sporadic eating. This was not something new from the lockdown, but the restrictions made the problem worse.

“I was on the streets during the lockdown. We heard there was a lockdown and some were in shelters, but we were never fetched to go there”

Tebogo Mjele, who has been homeless for two years, recycles waste as a means of income.

Mjele stood at the corner of De Kort and Biccard streets, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, wearing a green cap that matched the green recycling waste bag slung over his shoulder. “I am going to Doornfontein to recycle; there is a place where they give waste collectors money in return for cash,” he said.

Mjele did not stay in emergency shelters during the lockdown. This means that securing his daily meals was his responsibility and not the easiest to do. He would use the money from recycling to get food, and normally eats pap and maas, sometimes rice.

Despite relying on this activity to feed himself for two years, the most restrictive lockdown levels made money — and food — so much harder for him to access.

“It was very hard to secure money because of the lockdown. People were told to stay home,” Mjele said. Collecting waste was not the same for him because he says there was not as much refuse around as normal. Mjele had also come to rely on the generosity of people, but with fewer people walking around there was less chance he’d be able to get food.

While the government made shelters available to people during lockdown, Mjele was not so lucky, and no access to community shelters or emergency shelters also meant no access to food.

When asked why he did not go to a shelter, Mjele shrugged. “I was on the streets during the lockdown. We heard there was a lockdown and some were in shelters, but we were never fetched to go there.”

Covid-19 restrictions 

In March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the nationwide lockdown which would clamp down on citizens’ activity, restricting them to their homes. This would run from March 26, 2020, until April 16, 2020. As of October 2021, South Africa is still in a state of disaster and in lockdown, although at a lower level.

The restrictions implemented to protect citizens from contracting the virus, and an effort to prevent the collapse of the health system, changed the ways of when and how food was accessed by homeless youth. Subsequently, this left people vulnerable to malnourishment.

For the homeless, the situation became more dire. Countless homeless people, like Mjele, were unable to access the emergency shelters or an existing shelter. This was despite the state mandate as per the Government Gazette, section 11D, to identify temporary shelter for the homeless.

Johannesburg shelter Mould Empower Serve (MES) grappled with conflicting regulations. While they wanted to accommodate more people, social distancing restrictions meant they had to limit the number of people allowed into the shelter. This reduced capacity is an ongoing problem that persists, even as the restrictions have eased.

MES is an integrated social developmental NPO that aids society’s have-nots with educational, social and healthcare support and more. Zama Ndlovu, head of marketing and fundraising, mentions that at Ikhaya and Impilo homeless shelters the number of beneficiaries who stay at night was downsized from 110 to 90 and 100 to 65 respectively.

Shelters play a crucial role in this population’s access to food. For many, if they were unable to gain residence at a shelter because of the restrictions, they were unable to get consistent access to food.



Xolani Ncube, lean in figure, was waiting outside a Braamfontein confectionary store known for selling amagwinya. He leaned against a stop sign post looking into the store, waiting to ask shoppers for food. Ncube told the paper he eats sporadically if he gets food or raises enough money to buy food. “Some people give me amagwinya [vetkoek], otherwise ngiyaphanda [I hustle],” said Ncube.

“Hustle” culture is part and parcel of living on the streets. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from means having to find alternative means to fend for yourself.

The Denis Hurley Centre (DHC) provides care for vulnerable groups such as the homeless and refugees and more in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. The centre was among the organisations in the forefront of assisting the municipality with registering homeless people at temporary shelters in the city.

Durban is the second largest city in the country, with a large homeless youth population of more than 4 000 living on the streets.

“There was a moment of stability”

Shelters divided the homeless according to categories separating men and women, then those who were identified as sick and elderly. The DHC became a residential shelter during this time, housing 100 sick and elderly.

Unity among police and homeless youth 

Raymond Perrier, director at DHC, recalls a positive effect as homelessness was taken more seriously than it had been before. They were able to work alongside the Metro Police and government.

Perrier said prior to the lockdown, police were known to harass homeless people in the city. He noted it was interesting to see the same group of people who used to harass the homeless youth assist them during the lockdown time.

“There was a moment of stability,” said Perrier, referring to the hand-in-hand work they were able to do with the municipality and Metro Police. There was more understanding towards the homeless youth population in Durban.

Sadly though, that didn’t last long. Much of the stability and peace that existed between the Metro Police and the homeless population during the level five lockdown has crumbled.

Kamogelo Ratona, originally from the Vaal, said, “I used to have soap, a bucket and cloths to wash cars, but the police took it all away from me. It is the same as taking food out of my mouth.”

Obstacles to gaining access to shelter 

Traditionally non-residential organisations such as DHC and MES serve food to the homeless at particular times of the day, breakfast, lunch and supper, and offer lodging for the night only.

Luckily, MES and DHC did not struggle to gain access to food during the lockdown and they were able to feed those who had access to the shelters.

While these services are indeed helpful to those who can access them, not everyone is so lucky.

Tumi Oliphant, keen to speak of his experiences on the street, tells Wits Vuvuzela the problem with shelters is that they require you to pay R15 to stay the night. Shelters such as MES require the homeless to pay R15 in order to be beneficiaries that evening to have access to food and shelter.

Homeless youth, Tumi Oliphant, as he guards cars on Juta Street, Johannesburg. Photo: Amanda Khumalo

Oliphant is a car guard by day outside 86 Republic in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Oliphant said, “Since covid, sometimes I can make only R2 in 12 hours.”

Before covid-19, Oliphant made what he says was enough money on a good day to even buy himself chicken wings at Wing Republic on De Beer Street, Braamfontein. “Sometimes oGabadiya [the big bosses of the clubs or celebrities] give me R100 or more. I would go to Wing Republic and buy myself wings and eat,” Oliphant said with a grin on his face.

But getting into a shelter isn’t so easy, he said. The shelters close too early, because some require money and if you do not have money by a certain time you cannot enter. Oliphant does not sleep at shelters; he has found it better to hustle for himself and create relationships with regular people who park outside 86 Republic to rely on.

Reshaping response to homelessness 

The work of NGOs, NPOs, churches and other volunteers is essential to ensuring food is available, but these hands can only stretch so far.

South Africa needs adequate response to nutritional care for the homeless, beyond NGOs and church-based organisations, should the issue of food insecurity be properly addressed.

This can be achieved by assessing already existing organisations such as MES and DHC, which upskill their beneficiaries with reintegration programmes to help cement them into society; provide support groups and counselling for substance abuse; skills development; help those who have been sexually harassed and more.

More residential shelters could house the homeless and provide intensive reintegration programmes. This may be a plausible solution to fight malnutrition and food insecurity among this group at the same time as skilling them to progress with life.

“The ideal for a shelter programme is that there is progression. The model would be a short-term overnight stay, to progression to a semi-permanent space in a dorm; to a shared room; to a single room; to a flat – with different levels of psycho-social support along the way and increasing access to work,” Perrier said. Such a model can help address food insecurity and malnourishment.

Often the problems of homeless youth are shifted to them, but rethinking shelter structures as a way of fighting malnutrition and hunger can be a plausible solution.

In the same breath that the government responded to homelessness because of covid-19, effort should be made to maintain the stability Perrier alludes to. A priority would be reshaping shelters on a larger scale, ensuring that government work closely with NGOs. When there is agency to preserve the dignity of lives, that is when food security will thrive.

Making them residential would give them more agency over their lives, access to healthcare and consistent food, thereby restoring their dignity.


FEATURED IMAGE: Homeless youth sits outside McDonald’s begging for food. Photo: Amanda Khumalo