u-turn 25 birthday

A flamboyant Rachel (not her real name) became an angel from above when she assured me on my first night at the shelter that, although she didn’t know where I had come from, I would not remain homeless. Those words fanned the embers in my heart in the cold season of my homelessness.

Rachel preferred sleeping on the floor of the bathroom to a bed in the dormitory as privacy is a luxury in a night shelter.

Our paths crossed again when she came to the Stellenbosch Municipality’s COVID temporary shelter for the homeless. She had been entangled in the web of homelessness for more than 10 years and had struggled with addiction. Woven into the tapestry of Rachel’s life was a thread of prostitution, something to which homeless women are vulnerable. While living in the night shelter, I had to fight against its allure  that preyed on my vulnerability (see my blog, “The prosperity of Isaiah 58”)

But Rachel was more than her infirmities. She was a walking dictionary. She loved the English language and would share nuggets of what words meant and where they came from. Articulation was sacred to her and she would correct anyone guilty of shredding  the English language. She would curl up with her books for hours. In between reading, she also knitted using the donation of wool and knitting needles at the temporary shelter. She walked with confidence and roared with laughter that echoed throughout the shelter. I used to tell her she would have been a great teacher. Although she was in her mid-fifties, she had a zest for life.  She was a mechanic when she was younger, loved cars, and could explain the technical aspects with ease.

Rachel shared with me the trauma of living on the streets. She said she made sure she was always clean and looked presentable.  Whenever the University’s security  prevented her from washing her face at the outside taps, she would say, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Daily she would wash in the icy cold river. This made cold showers in the temporary shelter traumatic for her as they reminded her of the embedded painful experiences when she had to sleep outdoors. While living on the streets, she was raped.

A priest used to visit her at the temporary shelter, bringing her toiletries and other necessities. He first met her when she was abusing drugs on the premises of his church. She had thought he would scold and chase her away, but he had greeted her with so much compassion, an experience  which had been foreign to her. His compassion was a window to God’s love for her. She would share with him the challenges she was going through and questions she had about God.

During level four COVID restrictions, he asked her to help at the church once a week to assist with the distribution of food to those in need. She earned a stipend for her work and  this helped her to navigate her way into independent living.  After our temporary accommodation closed, and  we moved back to the night shelter, she frequently worked at the church and also assisted with ad hoc administrative duties. 

Rachel was devastated when she heard that her tenure at the night shelter was ending and she had to look for alternative accommodation. Her social worker wanted to transfer her to another shelter outside Stellenbosch, but Rachel did not want to leave the familiar, or go back on the streets. She shared her concerns with the priest. With the help of the church, he organised for her to rent a room which became her first step out of homelessness. If it had not been for the church’s assistance, Rachel might have gone back to the streets. 

The pathway out of homelessness is difficult. It takes a community to assist a person who is destitute. Even if a person is fortunate enough to stay in a night shelter, they  have three months in which to sort out their lives before being transferred to another shelter. 

In applying for work they must also consider their working hours as the closing time is six o’clock in the evening. This precludes work at major retail or takeaway outlets, which often require staff to work till eight o’clock or later.

When I was in the shelter system, I applied for administrative vacancies with regular office hours. I did not apply for waitressing and retail positions, because of difficulties with my accommodation, and I applied unsuccessfully for more than 50 vacancies. U-turn was my last option. I am forever grateful  to them for helping to transform my life. 

Success in securing employment means that alternative accommodation must be found within three months,  and renting a room is expensive, requires a good reference, and the stigma of homelessness may still linger. 

More assistance is needed to form pathways out of homelessness as more than 14,000 people are living rough on the streets of Cape Town and only about 3,500 sheltered beds are available.  Just as the church assisted Rachel to emerge from her homelessness, churches, businesses and even corporates need to form part of the  community that assists those who are entangled in its web by providing employment opportunities. They also need to be gracious with their employees who are navigating their way out of destitution .

By supporting U-turn with donations, whether in-kind or monetary, you can help to create a pathway out of homelessness.