A place of hope

2008-01-08 00:00

The Built Environment Support Group (BESG) is an NGO that has had to reinvent itself as circumstances changed, an experience that has kept this non-profit urban development organisation at the forefront of the social housing sector in the city and its surrounds.

“We started off as an advocacy organisation, demanding tenure rights for newly urbanised communities living in informal settlements,” says director Cameron Brisbane in reference to the BESG’s early days within the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning. It was the eighties and the needs were different.

“We have, however, held on to our passion and continue to assist marginalised communities find a voice to engage with the power structures. Our work is very much about deepening democracy,” says Brisbane.

The BESG has shifted its focus several times. Following a period of implementing housing and infrastructure delivery projects for low-income communities, BESG now concentrates on the development of sustainable human settlements, special-needs housing, capacity support and training of communities on housing rights and accessing government representation for such communities.

The confluence of research, community activism and project implementation has grounded BESG in a true understanding of the needs for and gaps in social housing in Pietermaritzburg. Of particular concern are orphaned and vulnerable children (OVCs), where the demand for care has spawned a proliferation of unregulated community-based homes and shelters.

It is a catch-22 situation. There has been a move away from large, formal children’s institutions, recognising that they are seldom in the best interests of childhood development and normalisation. Critics blame the institutional approach for exacerbating anti-social behaviour.

On the other hand, the gaps in housing provision for OVCs are being met by new operations that are able to source independent funding. While they fill a need, they often operate outside the realm of national child-welfare regulation.

Brisbane is concerned about the long-term planning for the children and also about care-givers establishing homes for motives ranging from misguided philanthropy to opportunism. BESG research indicates that the lack of formal control results in inadequate provision and an over-reliance on sporadic donations for operational costs, making the unregistered homes inherently unstable in terms of resource dependency and long-term sustainability.

“The homes must be acknowledged — they are filling a need — but the best interests of the children must also be maintained. We don’t want to trap children in inappropriate situations,” says Brisbane.

In response, BESG is tailoring new OVC care models that it, and other project implementers, are pioneering into South Africa’s transitional and special-needs housing sector.

Of these, the first that has caught the imagination and which is widely praised as a best-practice model is eKhaya Lethemba, a place of safety for OVCs in transition between abandonment and long-term care.

Operated by the Child and Family Welfare Society of Pietermaritzburg, eKhaya Lethemba (Zulu for Place of Hope) is a children’s home located near the city’s railway station in an area known as Baverstock Estate. Despite being declared a building conservation area, the estate reflects the wider inner city degeneration.

The building was leased on an annual renewable basis from the Pietermaritzburg City Council (now Msunduzi Municipality) and was surrounded by rubble and derelict outbuildings. Current project manager Nalini Naidoo describes the uncertainty over tenure and the condition of the buildings as “tough and very difficult to operate in”.

“Most of the children arrive in severe states of neglect or trauma,” explains Naidoo. “We were struggling to adequately provide the services we aspire to.”

The society accepts children on a transitional basis, while working with the courts and Department of Welfare and Population Development to determine the most suitable permanent placement for them. Naidoo says the supply is rapidly being outpaced by demand.

“There is never enough housing. We simply have to find more foster homes and other beneficial environments for these children.”

BESG and the society came together through their common membership of the Children in Distress (Cindi) network, an umbrella organisation for NGOs and NPOs doing work around children at risk, particularly as a consequence of the HIV/Aids pandemic. BESG wanted to pilot alternative places of care for OVCs and the society needed to renovate eKhaya Lethemba.

“We were a project match at the right time,” explains Brisbane, although he quickly adds that it wasn’t all plain sailing.

Acting as a facilitating intermediary, BESG underwrote the risk of project preparation for the proposed renovation and the securing of its funding. Through its advocacy and networking experience, BESG was in tune with KwaZulu-Natal’s provincial Department of Housing’s institutional housing subsidy that was being adapted and made available to organisations working with adults and children with special needs. The focus was on those affected by HIV and Aids.

The first port of call for BESG was to submit eKhaya Lethemba to the department as a project, managed by an institution (the society) providing social housing in an affordable area. At the time, the subsidy equated to R31 900 per bed. However, according to the subsidy guidelines for transitional housing projects for beneficiaries who do not qualify under the normal housing subsidy rules, only 70% of that sum would be released.

“The beneficiaries are small children who only stay for six to 12 weeks before being placed in permanent care” explains Brisbane.

This funding went some of the way to meeting the needs of eKhaya Lethemba, but the 70% fell short of even the lowest quote for the proposed renovations. “It was disheartening but forced us to think creatively. There were no shortcuts. In a home such as this there are certain costs that are unavoidable,” says Brisbane, referring to the need for a laundry and bathroom facilities for the children, and a small office for the management staff.

With this in mind, and due to a change of policy by the KZN Department of Housing, BESG repackaged its subsidy application in an attempt to secure the additional 30%, and on the premise that such “unavoidable costs” required “special needs” funding. The department agreed and there was now sufficient funding to meet all costs.

“It turned the project from being a cosmetic make-over to being a real belt-and-braces job,” says Brisbane.

The entire application process took two-and-a-half years, during which BESG was successful in renegotiating the lease from the city council into a 15-year renewable agreement, thereby providing long-term security of tenure.

Brisbane recognises the patience demanded of eKhaya Lethemba, but points to the overall benefit for the home. All three buildings have been renovated, two as residential units for the children and their care-givers and one as a fully-equipped crèche. The outbuildings have been converted into toilets and a laundry, and the rubble was removed to provide a play area with a jungle gym.

“We have space for 19 babies and children in their transition towards better lives,” says Naidoo.

Brisbane displays a quiet satisfaction on visiting eKhaya Lethemba. The children are in a place of care in a secure environment, while long-term planning for their future is being undertaken by the society.

Although the children themselves do not have the voice to lobby the political decision-makers about their future, it is they who are the real beneficiaries of such organised transitional and special-needs housing.

• This article was commissioned by the Social Housing Foundation.

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