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Home for homeless: Kenilworth-based NGO establish 'safe space' for addicts

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Raymond Bowman, Claremont U-turn service centre manager points to where one of the two planned mezanine floors will go once enough funds have been raised to enable the facility to also offer a safe space to street people. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen
Raymond Bowman, Claremont U-turn service centre manager points to where one of the two planned mezanine floors will go once enough funds have been raised to enable the facility to also offer a safe space to street people. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen

As authorities search for a fair and ethical solution to the growing number of people living on the streets, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Kenilworth says the establishment of micro safe spaces might hold the answer.

For the past 25 years, U-turn has focused on the rehabilitation of street people using a three-phase, skills-based programme.

It starts with basic needs relief, like food and clothing, available at a first-phase service centre, and then continues to drug and alcohol rehabilitation support (phase two).

The model culminates in a work-based learnership that lasts on average 19 months, called the “Life Change” programme (phase three).

The three-phase model has shown exemplary outcomes thus far, with over 80% of the people who graduate from the U-turn programme per year remaining employed and sober.

At present, the NGO has five service centres at various locations throughout Cape Town.

Not only do these centres provide street people access to food and clothing through Mi-change vouchers, but they also serve as an entry point to U-turn’s change readiness groups.

Rowen Ravera-Bauer, chief communications officer at U-turn, says the NGO would like to see the number of people assisted through their programme per year grow.

But for this to happen, street people need a safe space to spend the night to bridge the often daunting gap between phases one and two.

She says they would like to see a safe space attached to each of their service centres, starting with the one in Claremont.

According to Ravera-Bauer, one of the greatest challenges is that street people are expected to give up drug and alcohol use before they can go into rehab.

Shelters in general won’t accept people if they are still using.

The only option open to addicts is then to “sweat it out”.

She shares she once encountered a lady at her church who was frustrated with U-turn.

“She said, ‘I have been coming to you for a month. I keep coming and I want to go into rehab and I want to be helped but you are asking me to stay sober but I am a woman and at night time I can’t sleep on the street. It is not safe. I walk the streets through the night and the only way I can keep myself awake is through drugs. So how do I do that?’

“And I had to say to her, you are right. It doesn’t make sense. We are asking people to be sober and yet they have to go back to a reality every night of walking the streets, or sleeping under a bush.”

Ravera-Bauer says what does make sense from a therapeutic standpoint is providing a comprehensive, 360° rehab package that gives street people access to personal growth programmes during the day while allowing them to continue that journey at night.

“In the short term, we’ll have fewer people sleeping on the streets and in the long term, they go into a really good programme and have a better chance of overcoming the challenges they face because, at night, they are in a well-run therapeutic programme,” she says.

Referring to the recently approved amendments to the City of Cape Town’s Streets, Public Places and Prevention of Noise Nuisances By-law, Ravera-Bauer says that giving street people access to micro safe spaces in the same area where they live provides a kind and fair alternative.

According to these amendments, law enforcement officers are allowed to issue compliance notices to persons sleeping in a public place without authority with the caveat that they are given a “reasonable offer” of alternative shelter.

Only if they refuse this offer, will they be considered to have committed an offence. In such a case, the court may fine a guilty person.

She says although these amendments are quite progressive, the big problem is that there aren’t real reasonable alternatives. While mega safe spaces, like Culemborg in the Foreshore and Paint City in Bellville, have beds available, Ravera-Bauer says these aren’t necessarily accessible for a person living in Claremont.

“When they wake up in the morning in Bellville, they’ll have no idea where to go to or who to ask for assistance.

“Where do they go to get a meal? Their entire lifeline and support structure are in Claremont.

“Having a reasonable alternative down the road gives law enforcement, the immediate housed public and businesses an immediate solution, a good solution, a kind solution,” says Ravera-Bauer.

U-turn is currently raising funds to cover the cost of adding two mezzanine floors as well as ablution facilities to the existing service centre located on the corner of Stegman Road, Hawthorne Road and Claremont Boulevard. Once complete, the safe space should be able to accommodate about 70 people. It will be run by U-turn’s partner MES (Mould Empower Serve). 

The Christian integrated social development organisation has successfully piloted the safe space model at various locations throughout the country.

Ravera-Bauer says they have found that unless street people do the homework through change-readiness workshops and motivational interviewing, the majority are not ready to return to a structured and rule-driven environment. With safe spaces being much less structured, street people are more likely to access them than shelters.

“For a long time, institutions have been trying to shoehorn people who are in the first phase, in other words, people who are struggling with addiction, into shelters. It’s too structured for them. They don’t want to go into it and everyone is well aware of this. 

“With a safe space, it is easier for them to be there, and when they are ready, they can now come through to phase 2. We believe that we’ll have more people being ready sooner,” she concludes.

  • For more information WhatsApp Ravera-Bauer on 076 460 2987 or send and email to rowen@homeless.org.za
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