Kenyan Facebook page lays bare the hell in which Africa’s homeless live

Homelessness is one of the hardest problems to overlook, yet the most readily ignored–until now.

IT all started when Sham Patel decided to go and buy two homeless men some food. He used to pass them everyday, on his way to the gym but on this day it was raining and they were huddled up under a plastic sheet.

He decided that if he couldn’t offer them shelter, then he may as well take them some food. So the next day, he went to a kiosk, (local shop) bought bread, milk, biscuits and went and sat with the men.

What struck him the most is that when they opened the loaf of bread, they first offered him a slice. He made a promise to himself that from then on he would get out of his comfort zone and talk to as many homeless people as he could.

He decided he wanted to share the stories of Nairobi’s homeless people and set up the Homeless of NairobiFacebook page in September 2014,  modelled on the Humans of New York page which is an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants.

Sham goes out at all times of the day and night, talking to and taking photographs of Nairobi’s homeless. The stories he has accumulated are heart-wrenching, and yet often inspiring.

Life on the streets is revealed as being particularly brutal for homeless people. Street children in Nairobi are mostly in extremely poor health since, besides the lack of shelter, sanitation, and nutrition, a high number of these children are substance abusers. Some use glue and other drugs as a hunger suppressant, to help them sleep during the cold nights, or to numb their physical or emotional pain. An additional burden faced by the homeless are the country’s own law enforcement officers.

“How did you get injured?”
“Life on the streets is rough. Sometimes we get in fights with other street people. And sometimes we get beaten up by the police.”

Why do you get beaten by the police?”
“Because they have power and they don’t want us here.

They often try to strip them off their dignity by beating them and making them feel worthless. “The homeless already have to deal with social ostracisation, hunger, cold and rain, robbers, rapists, disease and now the people who are supposed to protect society turn away from them”, said Sham.

This kind of abuse has had traumatic consequences. One case that sticks out the most for Sham was when he relocated a homeless man called Daniel from the streets to a little shack. They wanted to take his friend along. His friend, however, absolutely refused to come with them. He did not trust Sham at all, even though Daniel begged him to go along. Sham explained; “it’s such a bad situation when the neglect society has consistently shown the homeless results in a deep mistrust of us. I saw that happen. He would rather stay on the streets than come with us and I could not understand it at the time”.

In fact, the abuse experienced at the hands of “the law” is so bad that in 2005 a section of homeless people in Nairobi staged a peaceful demonstration to draw attention to their plight, complaining over the killing of one of them by a police officer.

Huge numbers

Africa’s homeless are a highly neglected proportion of Africa’s urban environment, conveniently hidden from public view before and after public events in the country, as was the case for homeless people in South Africa around the period of the World Cup. However, their numbers are expected to mushroom across the continent in coming years. Today there an estimated 250,000 homeless people in Nairobi alone but the city, like many across Africa, is going to experience a population boom.

In 2014, Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos were the only megacities (with a population of over ten million people) in Africa, but three more are expected to emerge by 2030, as Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Johannesburg (South Africa), and Luanda (Angola) are each projected to have surpassed the 10m mark by then.

The number of large cities with populations between 5-10m in Africa is also expected to increase, from three in 2014 to 12 in 2030. This at a time when the World Bank warns of a global jobs crisis. By 2040 Africa’s working-age population will be the largest in the world at 1 billion, with 10m young Africans joining the labour market every year.

Joburg’s 800,000, Cairo’s 1m, homeless

Currently there are an estimated 800,000 homeless people in Johannesburg, whilst various sources point at over a million people in Cairo.

These homeless are on the streets due to economic constraints, though millions are forced into this situation due to natural disasters, conflict or government-sanctioned evictions. In Nigeria for example, Amnesty International says that over 1.5 million people have been ejected from their homes across the country and driven into street life following the wave of ejections and demolition that began all over the country in 1995.

The hope for many of Africa’s homeless people does not lie with their governments (most do have homes or projects for street children but not for adults), but in the efforts individuals like Sham and other support groups, whose projects raise awareness and help for them.

For example in Nigeria, select church groups led by their pastors and reverends have initiated the annual publicity ritual called “sleep out,” during which members set up tents under various bridges to build up public attention about the plight of the homeless, and put pressure on government.

Sham said, “we hope to achieve big things. We hope that the page grows so large that when we require funding for projects, we don’t have to go to the government and beg. We want to create a proper homeless shelter where we can teach the homeless people things like pottery, farming, mechanics, stitching…small skills that will help them be self-sustainable.”

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