*Hi, I’m Cathy. I’m a champion on the U-turn phase 3 work-readiness programme. My passion is communication and I’m part of the U-turn communication team. Every week I will be writing a blog post sharing my personal experience on this programme, to give you a window into the experience of being a champion on the U-turn programme.

Last week I shared about my 23 day rollercoaster ride in the Psychiatric Ward. As if that was not enough…My stay fell within the official 21-day COVID lockdown.

In March 2020 President Cyril Ramaphosa on the eve of the national lockdown instructed municipalities to provide temporary shelter for the homeless. 

When I was discharged from the hospital I decided to go to the Municipality’s COVID temporary shelter for the homeless. The shelter was based at Van der Stel Sports Centre, in Stellenbosch. At the shelter we were divided into different sections namely: single ladies, single men, couples and quarantine. When I arrived I had to spend a few days in the quarantine before being moved to the single ladies section. 

At night we slept on mattresses and had clean new bedding…It didn’t feel like our rights were taken away from us, we felt like guests. From our community, we call it a “Christmas bed”. This is when you have a makeshift bed, on the floor for the children to sleep on when guests arrive. 

The food was great! When one of the caters’ food and service was not up to standard, the municipality replaced them. They treated us with dignity, they listened and resolved matters. 

In the beginning there were no geysers, we showered in cold water. Maybe having no electricity for a few months in my apartment before becoming homeless, prepared me for this. For another resident the cold shower was traumatic. She said it reminded her of when she had to wash in the ice cold river and sleep outside. The municipality had a call for tender and the geysers were fitted in. The bathroom facilities were up to standard and we had our privacy using it.

It felt like home…There were people that were on the streets for more than 20 years who could finally find some rest and shelter. For a few months, they were considered humans, equals and rather than being outside, they heard in the far distance the sound of a cold wet winter.

We received a television, DVD player and an aerial as a donation from community members. Can you imagine the residents, watching movies and Turkish telenovelas after 20 years? The discussions between residents around the television shows and movies were so animated and involved that it sounded as if they were gossiping about real life events.

Our ‘home’ leveraged off every family meeting that President Cyril Ramaphosa held. For many of the residents, it was their first time hearing the voice of their president.  The atmosphere in the shelter was silent hope. You could hear a pin drop. Maybe because during all the previous State of the Nation addresses they slept outside, and they now had an opportunity to listen to what was happening in our country. Contrary to housed residents, we did not want the lockdown to come to an end, because it would be the end of our ‘home’. As Levels remained, the COVID shelter experienced the merriment of dominos being played daily, ladies knitting caps and scarves from donations received. Reading books and partaking in the Jerusalema Challenge with the female staff of the Stellenbosch Municipality Community Services.

I found rest for my exhausted and burnt out soul in the midst of more than 80 people. I thank God for the donations that the municipality received from the public and businesses. During the time when the hotels were not allowed to operate, one of the local hotels even donated their bedding to us and many of the residents went the extra mile in the way they made up their beds. It looked like a B&B. We even received clothing, so much so that I came with a backpack with a few clothing items and left that spring with black bags full of clothes. 

On Friday 9 October 2020, on the eve of World Homelessness Day, we were informed that the shelter would be closing on  Monday 12 October 2020.  The municipality would pay for the first week of the night shelter fees. A lot of the residents opted to go back to the streets because they did not want to face the disappointment of not having night shelter fees .

The day arrived, Monday 12 October 2022, almost 6 months of memories, rest and pure bliss was placed in large blue refuse bags…Those of us that chose to go to the night shelter were escorted by Law Enforcement. And we were to roam the streets until evening came…

Join me next week as I share my experience being back at the night shelter for a second time.