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U-Turn’s launch of Mi-Change vouchers for homeless people comes at a crucial time where the prevalence of homelessness in the country is evident, but the plight of homeless families is an even more shocking reality.

As the housed community, when we think about homelessness, we usually think of a single person living on the street. However, in the big cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, we are rapidly witnessing many families who are homeless. And by family, I mean father, mother and children all living in the streets. This picture poses a threat of generational trauma and the next generation of wounded people because of homelessness, especially because streets are not a conducive environment to raise children.

Children who are exposed to the rough and unsafe streets during homelessness are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and have mental health problems. These children often experience violence while trying to survive living in unstructured spaces, and this has a long-lasting detrimental effect.

Families become homeless for many reasons. In South Africa, key factors or causes of homelessness include the high rate of poverty, and families living in poverty are at greater risk of becoming homeless due to unemployment, skills shortages and violence. Most parents who experience homelessness have limited education, so finding a job that pays enough to cover rent and other expenses is challenging – and many times impossible. Many homeless families have experienced violence and other traumas. Homeless women are often fleeing from violent partners and have no safe options. When these experiences meet with the reality of high housing costs, avoiding homelessness becomes extremely hard.

However, one always wonders if South Africa has an egregious housing challenge or at times, people don’t know how to take opportunities to leave the streets? When granting these homeless families a Mi-Change voucher they don’t show an interest mainly because most of them target money and not a voucher which will require responsibility from them. A responsibility to find a U-Turn Homeless Support Centre themselves always puts them off. At times, being stagnant is more comforting to them and hence, we are educating them about the significance of taking chances when they come their way.

Thanks to the Mi-Change voucher initiative, launched in collaboration between NGOs U-Turn and MES, the housed public now has a powerful tool to support the big city’s homeless population. But, more importantly, homeless people now have a ticket out of homelessness.

The vouchers have become the ubiquitous way for communities to offer assistance and restore dignity to those in need on the streets.

You ask: What are Mi-Change vouchers?

The initiative is launched with the aim of empowering homeless individuals and addressing chronic homelessness throughout Cape Town. The vouchers serve as a means for people living the streets to access essential basic needs that include a hot meal, a shower, warm clothing and refuge in a safe space for the night, where available.

However, more than just meeting basic needs, the vouchers also provide an opportunity for homeless individuals to participate in U-Turn and MES rehabilitation and support programmes aimed at turning their lives around to become sober, employed and productive members of society.

The vouchers have quickly gained popularity among the housed public in Cape Town as they show a tangible and measurable impact in addressing homelessness. Now, the next city is Johannesburg, as we are advocating for the decrease in the number of homeless people hanging around the CBD begging for assistance.

The value of the vouchers is significant, not just in terms of the assistance they provide, but also because they symbolise change, compassion, hope and a chance for a better life. By offering a Mi-Change voucher to someone in need on the streets, communities are actively engaging in the journey of a homeless person, helping turn their lives around and this can only benefit all of us.

U-Turn’s quest to share the warmth this winter is actively about sharing stories of homeless individuals who have been positively impacted by someone giving them a voucher on the streets. Dimitri, a former addict who lived on the streets for many years, experienced a life-changing transformation when a couple gave him a voucher.

Through U-Turn’s work-readiness programme, Dimitri has successfully reintegrated into society and is now employed at Living Roots, a social enterprise at U-Turn and is now living in his own apartment.

On World Homeless Day, Mi-Change vouchers are launching in Johannesburg and possibly to other provinces in the near future to continue to provide professional support and rehabilitation services, safe space accommodation, access to essential basic needs and open up a pathway to independence, sobriety and employment.

As more communities embrace this initiative and more members of the public purchase Mi-Change vouchers to hand out to individuals in need on the streets, we can pave the way by becoming a country synonymous with compassion and hope thereby fostering a nationwide response to homelessness in South Africa. – Siwaphiwe Myataza-Mzantsi, U-turn Homelessness Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times on 9 October 2023

Photo: Living Roots