u-turn 25 birthday

Access to housing is a duel between people experiencing homelessness and people living in shacks or backyard dwellers.

When answering Mandisa Makesini from the EFF in Parliament, Human Settlements Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said that the housing backlog is 2 456 773 households.

According to the Cost of Homelessness report, there are more than 14 000 homeless people in the City of Cape Town alone.

In 2019, a year before I became homeless, I attended a conference in Helsinki, Finland. The Helsinki deputy mayor of social services and health care, Sanna Vesikansa, hosted a civic reception for delegates.

She mentioned that in the 1980s homelessness was still a problem, which had almost been solved through the housing first approach. The Finnish government adopted this programme in 2008.

The housing first model will not work in a South African context where there is a major backlog of housing allocated to people on a waiting list.

Following my trip to Helsinki, on my drive back home from Cape Town International Airport, the realities of poverty were clearly visible in contrast with Finland, as I drove from Helsinki Airport into the city and saw multiple flats.

Although the housing first model would be welcomed by the homeless, whether they are sleeping rough on the streets or in shelters, resistance would erupt from people waiting for housing in South Africa for as long as 40 years.

NGOs that work with people facing homelessness, like U-turn Homeless Ministries, are creating pathways out of homelessness through their four-phased programme.

Even though I never slept rough on the streets, I journeyed through the shelter system. I stayed at Stellenbosch Municipality’s Covid shelter for the homeless.

During that period, I applied for work and sent out business proposals, but nothing worked out.

When this shelter closed down, I stayed at the Stellenbosch night shelter, where the social worker recommended that I join U-turn, where I worked at one of their charity shops while once a week attending a personal development day. With my counsellor, I worked through the causes of why I had become homeless – I had not set boundaries.

I lent a large sum of money to a friend who did not pay it back and I had a tendency to put others first to the detriment of myself.

Last year I was employed at U-turn and moved into my own apartment at Conradie Park, a multi-income estate that has social housing and private flats.

The journey out of homelessness is not easy. A quick solution like the housing first model would not solve the problem, as it offers no therapeutic interventions. If the person sleeping rough on the streets is not dealing with what caused their situation, they will inevitably fall back into the cycle of homelessness.

Last year the Finnish Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Maria Ohisalo, commissioned a study to identify measures on how to end homelessness in Finland by 2027.

The report stated that to fight homelessness, there needs to be an understanding that people are dealing with complex issues.

“It is not a question of basic services, but of specific expertise, and strong social and health professionals to carry it out. They also need to be partnered by people with lived experiences and others with a peer background who can focus on helping with very concrete issues and be present as listeners.”

The cycle of homelessness can’t be broken in isolation.

When a person who is sleeping rough on the streets enters one of U-turn’s homeless support centres, they start a holistic journey out of homelessness. Not only are their basic needs met, but they have access to a caseworker. When they are ready to change their lives, they move to Phase 2, Drug/Alcohol Rehabilitation.

After they have completed rehabilitation, they transition into the Phase 3 Work-readiness programme, where they receive sheltered employment at one of U-turn’s social enterprises and have access to further therapeutic support.

Along with phased skills development, U-turn advocates for phased accommodation so clients can progress from basic safe space mattresses to shelters, to transitional houses and finally into social housing as they develop in recovery.

Safe space accommodation in Cape Town is currently limited and local solutions are urgently needed to address this problem. U-turn partners with shelters at Phase 2 and runs three transitional houses, which creates a safe environment for the Phase 3 Work-readiness

Champions, as their clients are known, to work on their recovery as they integrate into a life of independence and sobriety. Recently a few of the Champions moved into the newly built social housing, Maitland Mews.

With collective support, the journey out of homelessness can become a reality for many more people sleeping rough on the streets, simultaneously avoiding the potential for a duel between the homeless and those who have been awaiting their turn on the list for housing. – Cathy Achilles, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times on 30 May 2023

Photo: Unplush/Jon Tyson