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Growing up in the villages of the Eastern Cape, Tsolo to be specific, the only time females ran away from their homes was to avoid child marriages or forced marriages which in Nguni culture is referred to as Ukuthwalwa.

Ukuthwalwa is the South African term for bride kidnapping, the practice of a man abducting a young girl and forcing her into marriage, often with the consent of her parents.

What I didn’t know then is the propensity of these village females’ high risk of homelessness. In the outskirts of the country, people don’t really know what homelessness is because even if you sprint away from your biological home, any other home in the village is still regarded as your home if you are in need of a place to hide your head. Children belong to the entire village, not just their biological family.

But based on the definition of homelessness by the UN, experiencing homelessness means not having stable, safe and adequate housing, nor the means and ability of obtaining it. It’s now coming to my attention that the females who ran away from their homes in the villages to avoid forced marriages became homeless almost as soon as they left home and were in desperate need of refuge.

The UN Habitat, the secretary-general of the UN, the Institute of Global Homelessness or the European Federation of Organisations Working on Homelessness (FEANTSA) all have in common to include various forms of homelessness: persons living in the streets, in open spaces or cars; persons living in temporary emergency accommodation, in women’s shelters, in camps or other temporary accommodation provided to internally displaced persons, refugees or migrants; and persons living in severely inadequate and insecure housing, such as residents of informal settlements. Rough sleeping is thus only one manifestation of homelessness, but not necessarily the most common one.

Decades later, residing in big cities has exposed me to the prevalence of homelessness. What has always puzzled me is how narrow-minded I would suddenly be about the causes of homelessness.

I realised how the privilege of having a place I call home made me forget how issues like forced criminal exploitation such as gangsterism, gender-based violence and cultural practices can make some people flee their homes.

As the housed population, at times I lacked clarity as to why lots of people were homeless in the big cities until I met a now close friend of mine who narrated a story of how she experienced and overcame homelessness when she moved to Johannesburg from Mthatha and how she was assisted by renowned musician, Simphiwe Dana.

She also deeply narrated what made her run away from home. She had been raped by her uncle and in a family meeting it was decided that the incident will be kept as a secret. Her trauma was to be a family secret and life had to continue as if nothing had happened to her.

She fled her home and became homeless.

Years later as a U-Turn staff, I am part of a team that assists individuals and communities with skills to overcome homelessness. While we continually raise funds to help homeless people leave the streets and live a flourishing life, we are also prioritising the provision of family reunification services, which helps our beneficiaries connect and be reintegrated in their family structures.

Barriers like past wounds, unforgiveness, and unresolved conflicts will always be there and we make sure that if a person lives on the street and gets admitted into the developmental four phase programme, they are assisted with not only overcoming chronic homelessness but rebuilding broken communications and family bonds.

We find family reunification services a cornerstone of our programme for to know where you are headed to, you must know, acknowledge and accept your past. As we enter the festive season where some homeless people have not reunited with their families, let’s be mindful of why they left their homes in the first place. Our mandate is also making sure that we contribute positively to the reduction of homelessness, hence family reunification really matters for the revival of any person who experienced homelessness.

Having someone spending their first Christmas this year with their families because of the help they received through the developmental four phase programme is beyond assisting the person but speaks also to community building.

In the absence of a family reunification model in South Africa, most homeless people stay far longer on the streets than is necessary. Having civil organisations that are intentional about the implementation of family reunification services shows that an individual’s healing is given the attention it deserves.

Also, what really matters for U-Turn is a family reunification service that is holistic and effective.

Family reunification services refer to goal-directed strategies, interventions, planned support and empowerment services rendered to homeless people, as well as to their families to allow systematic family reunification and facilitate the restoration of the relations between the formerly homeless people and their families.

Reunification services often strive to facilitate the development of mutually reciprocal relationships between formerly homeless people who have gone through chronic homelessness who need to reconnect with their biological parents, children and families.

Family reunification services aim to address the issues that led to or contributed towards the person being homeless and family reunification services are effective and efficient when there’s transparency and willingness to start fresh and let old wounds heal.

As the Christmas season is slowly approaching us, I commend organisations that have put in some excellent work to make sure that some people who experienced homelessness and lost contact with their families, after many years, spend time with their families and share warmth in spaces where they feel welcomed and valued. – 2023 Siwaphiwe Myataza-Mzantsi, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published by The Star on 11 December 2023

Photo: Any Lane