Trash is a street person's currency in Somerset West

2015-07-10 21:12

Cape Town – A pastor and businessman has introduced an innovative bartering system for those who live on the streets of Somerset West.

The maths is simple: A big municipal bag of litter buys a hot meal. Five bags equal a blanket to keep the wind and rain out.

It seems to be a fair deal judging by the queue outside the Helderberg Street People’s Centre in Victoria Street on Friday morning. Up to 250 people a day visit the centre for their daily soup and bread. 

The centre’s new chairperson is Andy Loughton, 54, who owns a restaurant and bakery and said he was called to preach to street people eight years ago.

“It says in the Bible that if a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t deserve to eat and that is exactly the principle I am applying.”

A group of mainly men sit on their rubbish bags at the back of the centre, as Loughton explains the system and reads from the Bible.

When he asks who is on board, a chap posing somewhat regally with one knee on the tar loudly pitches in: “I am! I’m the captain, I will steer the ship.”

Two minutes is set aside for a prayer to bless the food. Afterwards, people hand over their bags, wash their hands in a communal bucket and collect their food from a hatch.

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

No free lunches

The idea began when Loughton organised a street clean-up a year ago in exchange for a boerewors roll and a cooldrink. A hundred bags of junk were collected in two hours.

Since taking up his new role a few weeks ago he decided to introduce the bag exchange idea on a daily basis.

“We have to create an opportunity for people to work. We have to stop feeling sorry for people and start helping them up.”

Loughton felt the process was a way to bring dignity and self-respect to those on the street, and an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch. Rubbish seems to fly around here. It is very easy to find.”

He says there is compassion for those who come to the centre in a sick state or in wheelchairs.

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Teaching discipline

The idea of collecting trash was acceptable for 42-year-old Jonathan Geldenhuys, who has lived near the station for seven years.

“It’s a good idea because it gives people some discipline,” he said while holding a soup-filled yoghurt container, with two bread slices stacked on top.

“I brought two bags today and it took me about an hour to collect.”

Geldenhuys gets a bit of cash in when people ask him to maintain their gardens. He remains hopeful that he’ll find a solution to his predicament.

One of Loughton’s converts is Deon le Roux, 47, who has been living on the streets for almost two months.

“In the beginning, I must admit I was dubious. I was thinking about it when one day the wind blew a bag against my leg. Then I thought, what the hell, take a bag,” said Le Roux, while winking at Loughton.

“I am very happy about this. I can find a job. It’s not that I want to be on the street.”

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Crime is not going to stop

It’s been a challenge to shift everyone’s attitudes. A man approached him in the morning asking for a pair of jeans and became angry when he suggested an exchange of five trash bags. Loughton believes the man was going to sell the jeans for money.

The system is not without its critics.

Xavier Capes, 34, reluctantly pitched up at the centre with a full bag every day but believed it was not the way to solve unemployment, poverty and crime in the area.

He apparently used to co-own a media business before a partnership went south and he lost everything. Out of a rucksack, he produced a battered yellow folder with a few of his qualifications. He sometimes takes bouncer positions at clubs, but says owners offer small wages because they know he does not have much choice.

“I came here with zero energy, my stomach was empty and I still managed to fill that bag. If you have no choice, you do what you have to do. But what we need is sustainable jobs,” he says.

“Crime is not going to stop in Somerset West because of Andy.”

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)


A number of grocery stores, businesses and individuals donate food to the centre to be redistributed.

The city’s waste management sponsors the blue bags. From 08:30am, a staff member records every individual who takes a bag and writes a number on it so that people are not encouraged to take any full bag of rubbish out of a dustbin.

“The commodity we use is money. The commodity that someone on the street can use, well, give him a commodity that can be of benefit to him so he doesn’t become more vulnerable through just being given hand-outs,” says Loughton.

Once a lease agreement has been concluded, he is planning to move to a new precinct at the Somerset West night shelter and close the centre in Victoria Street.

The new location will offer the meal exchange twice a day, a daytime storage space for blankets and bedrolls, social services and a supervised dry facility under which to sleep.

Read more on:    cape town  |  good news

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