“Dammit!”

From behind her simple pine desk Khetiwe stares at me, wide-eyed.

“I am too late, right?”

She shakes her head and lowers her eyes. “I tried, Mr Olivier, but they wouldn’t listen to me. The line was so long. I kept telling them you will come – you always come.”

“Ag, no worries, first come, first served. Don’t you worry, the night’s still a little gogga. I’ll go to the casino and pretend to gamble – it’s open all night and I’ve got enough coins for some food.

Khetiwe treats everyone with respect; not because it’s her job, but because she cares about people – animals too. I started calling her Kitty when I saw her feeding a stray cat on the street. It was looking for shelter, just like me. I can’t get her to call me Ollie though. It’s always ‘Mr Olivier’. It’s been like this since my first night at the shelter. It doesn’t help that living on the streets for four years has made my 23-year-old face look battered by the sun and wind.

“Welcome to Umthunzi Wokuphumla, sir,” she’d greeted me.

Before I could hand over my R10 cash for a bed, a mean looking security guard stepped in front of me. “You carrying?”

“Carrying?” I patted my backpack. “Only this.”

“Drugs, boy. Knives, guns … any weapons?”

I shook my head but he searched me anyway. “You can’t come in if you’re carrying and you don’t hand it over.”

I’d walked past the warehouse a million times and never knew it was a shelter until I overheard a shopper at the mall talk about it.

Khetiwe smiled when I’d asked her the meaning of the shelter’s name. “It means ‘a place of shade for resting’; a place that people can find some respite from the harshness on the streets. That’s why no substances and weapons.”

I liked that.

“You’re the first person who’s asked what the name means. How about I teach you some Xhosa and you help me improve my Afrikaans?” she said, giving me a maak-my-vrek, killer smile.

Since then, she’s become my favourite person.

“Here you go, Kitty girl.” I slide two plastic-coated chunks across her desk. “Something to sweeten your evening.”

“Hawu, enkosi, Mr Olivier. Chocolate eclairs – my favourite.”

“I know, you told me so. See you tomorrow.”

“Geniet u aand, Mr Olivier. Please don’t be late again.”

“Ndiyabulela, Kitty. Don’t work too hard, hey.” She is studying full-time but works at the shelter two nights a week, and sometimes at weekends. She wants to earn some spending money, plus she says she wants to make a difference by helping the homeless.

I might be homeless but I keep a neat appearance: toothpaste, toothbrush, and roll-on tucked into my backpack, along with a few items of clothing and a nail clipper. Plus my most valuable possessions: my ID document, and the hardcover notebook a regular shopper at the mall gave me, when she saw me scribbling on scraps of paper. Dankie tog, my hair looks okay with a finger brush-through.

At the mall where I work as a car guard, shoppers treat me with less suspicion when I offer to help them with their bags, but there are still a few who look at me with disgust. It stings. One or two give something to eat instead. “I don’t believe in enabling bad habits, but everyone has to eat.” Their words are like a pinch of salt on a wound, but I understand.

It’s around 6pm when I leave the shelter, but on a winter’s night in Cape Town, the sun has already set, and the wind slices through my thin coat as I head for the casino. It will take me 30 minutes of fast walking to get there.

***

Tell us: Why do you think Mr Olivier is homeless?