u-turn 25 birthday

At this time of the year, with temperatures dropping to single digits, torrential rain and bracing winds, it is hard not to think about the plight of people living on the street.

The sad reality is that more than 14 000 people rest their heads on the cold pavement on any given night in greater Cape Town. But what does the harsh winter teach us about the conditions around homelessness, how it is perpetuated and how we can help to solve it?

Local NGO, U-turn Homeless Ministries, operate Homeless Support Centres that provide basic needs to people living on the street as well as a pathway out of homelessness.

Their centres and therapeutic staff working there, help to alleviate immediate suffering and also build the motivation of their clients to leave the street long-term.

As anyone who has ever attempted a New Year’s resolution can testify, motivation is a fluctuating variable and highly dependent on external conditions.

Icy winter weather is one such motivating factor that drives more people into U-turn Support Centres looking for relief and a way out of homelessness but it is not the only one.

Cash on the street, or a lack thereof, is also a condition that motivates people to come out of homelessness.

The Covid lockdown provided an otherwise impossible social experiment to prove this.

The hard lockdown and subsequent lack of daily cash handouts saw droves of people coming into U-turn Homeless Support Centres for help.

From 814 people in 2019 to 2332 people in 2020, a 286% increase.

One of those people, in 2020, was Quintin McLaughlin who after living on the streets for nine years is now off the streets, independent, living in his own apartment, working full time and thriving.

Like many U-turn graduates, Quintin said he will never go back to the streets. It took nine years of struggling in a cycle of addiction and homelessness for him to get to that place.

Phinius Sebatsane, founder of Rea Thusana (we help one another) and close personal friend of Quintin works alongside people living on the street.

A charismatic and genuine leader, with a passing resemblance to Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, Phinius likens homelessness to a seed and its soil.

Blame is often placed on the seed for not growing but little regard is given to the soil in which it is planted.

When the seed is placed in the right soil, the right conditions, it germinates and grows into its full potential.

This is a powerful analogy and ought to give pause to the way we think about and respond to homelessness.

Often, our compassionate but misplaced response in giving cash or short-term welfare is causing the very conditions that leave the seed undeveloped in the ground.

In winter, when it is nearly impossible not to feel deep compassion for people living on the streets, it is important to channel compassion into a meaningful solution that helps people off the street rather than exacerbating the problem.

Mi-change vouchers are one vehicle to do this, as it is directly supporting local NGOs working in the sector. As you contemplate the life of people struggling on the streets this winter, think of Quintin, whose dignity and human worth is now restored.

Every human being’s worth can be restored if we play our part in cultivating the right conditions to help more people off the cold streets. – Stephen Underwood, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times newspaper on 26 June 2023

Photo: U-turn