Updated 20 February 2014

The saddest thing I have ever seen

You’ll never guess what an incredibly sad thing I saw on my way to work this morning, says Susan Erasmus.


On my way to work this morning I saw a homeless hoarder.

She was on the pavement arranging her massive hoard of probably worthless worldly goods. Most of it was in black bags tied to a supermarket trolley, which must have been under there somewhere. This woman was obviously homeless, dishevelled, but clearly very concerned about her massive stash of goods. This has to be the saddest thing I have ever seen.  A homeless hoarder.

We are so accustomed to images of poverty and suffering in this country that it takes something startling to penetrate our usual defences.

Hoarders are notorious for collecting masses of worthless stuff – old newspapers, empty yoghurt containers, broken appliances, old magazines, clothes no one will ever wear again. Some hoarders ‘specialise’: you find animal hoarders, hoarders of empty beer cans, old machine parts and so forth.  It seems to be a form of depression that responds to medication for obsessive compulsive disorder.

This woman must have had close on a hundred kilos’ worth of stuff in her trolley. It was obviously a heavy load and difficult to manoeuvre.  But she would probably defend it with her life. And provide shelter it before she took care of herself. Many hoarders say they are saving things for a rainy day. This woman’s rainy day has arrived, but none of this stuff is likely to be of any use to her. On the contrary.

The need for shelter

Shelter is such a basic human need and in South Africa it is estimated that between 7,5 million and 10 million people live in informal housing – often without access to basic services and sanitation. It is also estimated that the government has indeed provided three million housing units since it came to power, but  the backlog remains huge.

All of this got me thinking about what it would mean to be homeless and destitute. And how much one should appreciate one’s home, which, in most cases, provides safety, shelter and security. A place of one’s own, or even just a room that is yours. I don’t think any of us could imagine what it must be like to be without this until we’ve actually been on the streets.

(Speaking of a home of one’s own, I have received several queries from users asking about an update on the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, where I adopted a donkey several years ago, and about which I wrote two columns.[I have adopted a new donkey called Bella after Spokie died.]

I am happy to report that the sanctuary has recently acquired a home of its own – enabling them to provide a wonderful sanctuary for these formerly neglected and destitute animals. Click right here if you want to find out more. I promise it will make you feel better.

Many of these magnificent creatures come from the worst circumstances of neglect, abuse and/or cruelty. Supposedly a route which many people who find themselves homeless have also followed.)

The homeless hoarder

But to me the saddest thing about the homeless hoarder, is that even if she had a house, her hoarding habits would quickly make it uninhabitable.

And as social structures and infrastructure in our country deteriorate, someone like her becomes less and less likely to be at the receiving end of multi-faceted treatment and social programmes that could lead to reintegration and appropriate medical care.

What kills me is that I know that I will drive past her again and again in the months to come, and eventually, for the sake of my own sanity no longer see her.

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.




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