An early morning drive to provide warmth to the homeless – David Gemmell

First Help, the largest towing company in the Southern Hemisphere, has an annual Blanket Drive which takes place in the winter. The drive aims to hand out blankets to the homeless in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Author David Gemmell – he wrote the book ‘Joost, Man in the Mirror’ about rugby’s Joost van der Westhuizen – was invited by First Help founder Clinton Spolander, to join the early morning drive this year. He told BizNews about his experience, a tow truck driver named ‘Duggie’, the relationship that exists between drivers’ and street people – and how handing out blankets to a phalanx of homeless people turned out to be painful. Gemmell noted that it’s tough seeing first-hand how many people had it hard, but said it was pleasant to see “how these hapless souls could be cheered up by a dint of a single blanket.”  – Linda van Tilburg

David Gemmell on handing out blankets to the homeless:

A long time ago, I had a column in the Saturday Star and it was [about] street people. I used to interview street people – the beggars, limpers, little mothers, blind people, acrobats and the jugglers – and First Help was reading these things. Clinton [the owner] phoned me and said, “look, if you’re really interested in street people, [would] you would like to come with us on our blanket drive?” That’s why I went on the first one. It was a very eye-opening experience, to drive around Johannesburg. If you don’t look for them, you don’t really notice the street people.

Once you start looking for them – which we were doing, me and my driver, Gregs – to give them blankets, you just can’t believe how many people are sleeping rough. They sleep under plastic sheets, under bridges and in bushes. It is just astonishing. This year when they were doing it again, they called me and said, “would you like to come with us? No obligation or anything. Would you just like to come?” Again, it was a very edifying experience, because there’s even more people on the streets now, because unemployment. 

On what he found on this year’s Blanket Drive:

They were very efficient this year. They had it all planned out – where they were going to go.  The first year, we made it up as we went along. We had lots of blankets in the truck and then we would look for people to give them to. This year was different in that they had allocated charities for us to go to. In some ways, it’s very depressing seeing what’s going on out there. But it’s also quite uplifting to know people like Clinton – and he’s not the only one doing it – a lot of people [are involved] and helping in that.

Just being involved with Clinton and seeing the people who get the blankets – seeing their expressions and how it changes their life. Just the fact they get something for nothing seems to cheer them up. But the blanket is what they want. Between food and blankets, they’d probably take the blanket.

On handing the blankets out to the homeless:

In the beginning, we went off to Kempton Park. I was with a driver called Duggie and we went to a homeless shelter where they put up homeless people. They were looking after 32 people. It was nine o’clock in the morning and I thought, “unemployed people with nowhere to live but the shelter,” as they weren’t there. I said, we are. I reckoned half of them were at the traffic lights trying to get money from people who come past. We did see two of them, [who] were very polite and very grateful. We gave them a couple of boxes of blankets. That was our first stop.

We left the shelter and headed further into Kempton Park, just on the fringes of the sort of city area. We came across a very scruffy part of town – and they were a whole lot of shacks built on the pavement. You could hardly call them shacks. They were rickety little structures. We arrived and there was a guy sitting, watching us, having a smoke outside one of the shacks. He was the only guy I could see around that area, just watching us until Duggie waved a blanket at him. Then he became like Usain Bolt – he just rushed and he was at the window, just ready to take.

In a very strange way, people just started coming out of the house. I don’t know if he told them, but they all just started coming out – and they were lots of them. They must have been 10-15 people. It was a bit chaotic, but Duggie got them all into a queue. They just seem to listen to him. We then dished out the blankets to each one.

On how many blankets were given out to the homeless:

On the day, they gave out 4000 blankets between Pretoria and Johannesburg. First Help have a thousand two trucks on the road, which is staggering. I mean, how many accidents to need for a thousand tow trucks? But they all appear to be very busy. The [Blanket Drive] is so professional. I spoke to Clinton, asking, “where do you get the blankets from? Who gives them to you?” He replied, “we buy them and give them away.”

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