City taken to task

Carin Rhoode Gelderblom was the first applicant in the case against the City of Cape Town for fining homeless people.

On Monday September 2, a group of homeless people, represented by pro-bono lawyers, hope to get a chance to argue their case in the Western Cape High Court against the City for fining them for obstructing by-laws.

Lawyers from Dingley Marshall Inc in Claremont have filed an urgent interdict against the City of Cape Town, which called for the suspension of the fining and prosecution of homeless people, and preventing the City from confiscating their belongings.

The interdict was filed after the City did not respond to their initial letter of demand.

The seven applicants in the case are Carin Rhoode Gelderblom, Emily Smith, Vuyo Mbozi, Natasha Present, Patricia Geyser, Beulah Meyer and Xolani Siboxo.

The City’s executive director for safety and security, Richard Bosman, said the City of Cape Town had received the court papers on Thursday August 22, and that the papers were currently with Legal Services and the City would respond accordingly in its answering affidavit.

He did not say whether or not they planned to oppose the matter.

The City came under fire from the public earlier this year about fining the homeless for obstructing pavements and erecting structures.

The City said it was not targeting street people, but merely enforcing by-laws.

At the time, Mayco member for safety and security, JP Smith, said the City has seen an increase in the number of complaints relating to street people.

Responding to complaints, officers were enforcing the by-law relating to streets, public places and prevention of noise nuisances, as well as the Integrated Waste Management By-law, as they have for many years.

During the first three months of this year, the City had issued 199 fines to the homeless. The City did not say whether they have issued more fines.

Following the public outrage, stakeholders, NGOs, including the Street People’s Forum and Community Chest met to discuss how best to challenge the City’s by-laws.

It emerged from the meeting that several homeless people in the city had recently been fined up to R1 500 under the public places and prevention of noise nuisances by-laws.

It was at one of these meetings that the director of Dingley Marshall Inc, Lucien Lewin, was introduced to the case, and decided to offer his services.

“We’ve been engaging with stakeholders working with homeless people and they’ve introduced us to the group of people who were affected by this. The group of homeless people don’t have the expertise to protect themselves, and neither do they have the funds, so it was important to us to help them get proper representation to help them with the case.”

Mr Lewin said they had filed an interim order, which included suspending the prosecution of homeless people. “We are concerned that our clients will get criminal records which will prevent them from getting jobs in future once they are rehabilitated.”

The order also states that the City had been in breach of the homeless’ constitutional rights by taking their belongings.

“They take people’s clothes and shelters which they use to keep warm against elements. Not only that, they take belongings such as identity documents and other important documents and just throw them away. One of our clients even had their dentures taken. We want to stop the City from confiscating their belongings.”

He said the interdict will stop the City taking any further action against their clients for 20 days until the constitutionality of the by-law is investigated. He said they had asked to appear in court on Monday September 2.

The legal action has been welcomed by some of the stakeholders who have been advocating for the City to stop fining homeless people.

CBD-based NGO Community Chest had welcomed and supported the legal action in terms of providing a voice for the voiceless.

Community Chest spokesperson, Desire Goliath, said they believed that poverty or homelessness should never be criminalised. She said following a meeting on the topic, Community Chest continued to liaise with the stakeholders and collected the issued fines from individuals via organisations or personally, and arranged * meetings with Dingley Marshal and the individuals who were fined to explain the process and to request permission to act on their behalf.

Hannes van der Merwe, of the Street People’s Forum, said they had subsequently met with the City officials after their emergency meeting and had tabled the statement made against the fining of homeless people.

He said the Street People’s Forum fully supported the legal action taken against the matter. “The desired outcome is that the City will revise its stance on homelessness with a broader consultation of all stakeholders. We also want them to immediately stop the fining, and we hope that this will spur them to review the validity of the by-law.”

Carin Rhoode Gelderblom, was the first applicant to seek help after she was scared of going to jail when law enforcement took her belongings, including her fine with the court date on it. She and her friend had been fined R500 for what officers told them was dumping and littering, and had her belongings removed many times.

Ms Rhoode Gelderblom said she found out from her friend long after the court date that she was supposed to appear. “We then heard that there were lawyers who were prepared to help us and I went with Emily Smit. The others were too scared to go, which is understandable because of the way we are treated.”

She said she was grateful to Mr Lewin, because “his word was his honour”.

While the City did not want to say whether they had still been issuing fines, Ms Rhoode Gelderblom said she knew of someone who was fined last week.

“Even though it is the seven of us, this is for homeless people everywhere. We just want the City to treat us like human beings. Leave our plastic – it is a roof over our heads. Leave our cardboard – it is our mattresses we sleep on.

“If homeless people bother other people or are criminals then yes, the law should intervene, but we cannot all be painted with the same brush.”

The applicants handed in affidavits detailing their experiences with fining and the confiscation of their goods.