u-turn 25 birthday



The call by UN-Habitat and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) for civil society organisations to contribute to the forthcoming report on “Inclusive policies and programmes to address homelessness, including in the aftermath of Covid-19”, gives me tremendous hope in addressing homelessness.

Our individual calling in social work begins now.

My relationship with the social work profession started in my adolescent phase where I found myself looking after my HIV parent each day, before and after school.

As a teen, I found myself assuming roles that were meant for elders. These were roles like bathing, medicating and feeding my ill parent.

A community social worker used to visit our home twice a week and as an older child to my siblings, I would be expected to be the one reporting on our parent’s healing journey. But more than anything the social worker made sure that in our home we were all equipped with the right information and tools to look after our parent.

In a rural community that experienced HIV stigma and discrimination, some community members judged HIV patient’s choices in life.

Hearing some statements could easily affect the emotional well-being and mental health of people looking after HIV patients, hence, it was crucial for our family to be supported by a social worker assigned by the government to our town.

That experience taught me a lot about the social work profession.

Fast forward to my journey as a young professional at U-Turn Homeless Ministry today, where every day we work with homeless individuals and watch our social work colleagues empowering and assisting homeless individuals with skills to overcome homelessness.

There are many social issues that could lead to a person being homeless. At times, it’s easy for housed residents to judge and feel that homeless people deserve no help because of their choices. But I commend the work our social workers do in defeating homelessness.

Through the therapeutic approaches they have established, together with our occupational therapist, a culture of recovery. this means that not only formerly homeless people are empowered, but U-turn employees too.

The organisation’s long-term and sustainable empowerment approach to solve homelessness, include providing a healthy and stable ecosystem; taking time to build the resilience of each individual; and creating opportunities for learning and employment.

Key to providing services to people experiencing homelessness is ensuring that the spaces where work experience is provided are therapeutic. There they are able to learn from mistakes and be challenged to improve in the future. A key part of this is treating people with dignity and respect as they journey out of homelessness.

Many people experiencing homelessness have had bad experiences with support services and it takes time to rebuild a relationship of trust. Once trust is gained it must be leveraged into action supporting recovery.

In U-turn’s Work-Readiness programme, participants are given responsibilities based on trust, such as handling cash in one of the U-turn retail stores.

This often surprises the participants as they wonder why trust is placed in them given their past. This is done because the therapeutic team sees their potential and are encouraging their growth.

Creating a culture of recovery includes the language used to describe those accessing services. U-turn calls everyone on the work-readiness programme “Champions” – or “Champs” for short – because they are overcoming enormous odds through the help of our therapeutic teams.

One of the reasons that Mi-change vouchers are such an effective tool for the community to use when responding to homelessness is that they “purchase” all this therapeutic support for people living on the streets apart from the obvious basic needs such as food and clothing. It is the therapeutic support that ultimately makes the long-term difference.

Social work is indeed a key pillar in addressing and defeating homelessness. We invite you to reflect on and celebrate this during National Social Work Month this March. – Siwaphiwe Myataza-Mzantsi, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times on 11 March 2023

Photo: Pexels/ Antoni Shkraba