In South Africa, thousands of people – most of them Zimbabweans – have been seeking shelter at a Johannesburg church, which has become a haven for the homeless and marginalized.
However, over the past year, the situation at the Central Methodist Church has grown controversial and has raised questions about the best ways to care for the homeless. In July, South African police arrested 300 people outside the church.
Now, civil society groups say despite the church’s good intentions, the current situation is unsustainable. They cite health risks and say conditions are not suitable for children. They’re calling on the South African government to help find a long term solution, not just temporary alternative shelters.
Among the civil society groups involved is the Aids Law Project. Attorney Agnieszka Wlodarski says the group got involved earlier this year.
“We actually got involved in July this year. There were a number of arrests…of people that were sleeping around the church because there wasn’t sufficient capacity in the church,” she says.
Those arrested were charged with loitering. The AIDS Law project joined the Legal Resources Center, Lawyers for Human Rights and other groups in taking legal action to try to determine whether the arrests were constitutional.
“We realized there was obviously a big issue in terms of Zimbabwean migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and so on coming to South Africa because conditions are quite bad in their own respective countries,” she says.
High hopes, stark reality in Johannesburg
“Most of them come to Johannesburg because it’s seen as an economic hub and potentially giving them an opportunity in life to basically make a living and survive. Most people end up on the street,” she says.
Wlodarski says the Central Methodist Mission has “provided a sanctuary for a lot of the people that have come through and have got no other shelter or means of survival.”
Recent estimates say as many as 3,500 people may be gathering around the church.
The AIDS Law Project attorney says, “There should be meaningful engagement between the city as well as those living in the Central Methodist Mission to try and find some alternative way of accommodating them.”
The civil society groups say the dignity and human rights of the marginalized need to be protected.
The situation at the church, however, may be symptomatic of a larger problem in the city. Wlodarski says the group Doctors Without Borders estimates there may be as many 30,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Johannesburg.