Shelters for homeless families a rarity

The Somerset West Family Shelter is one of few in the country

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The Somerset West Family Shelter in a repurposed old school has a play area for children.

As winter approaches, there is a desperate need for more shelters for homeless families. The Somerset West Family Shelter, about 45km from the Cape Town city centre, is one of only a few of its kind in the country which allows families to live together in their own rooms. It has received applications from as far away as Johannesburg.

The shelter operates out of a repurposed school. The classrooms have been divided into rooms and there is a play area for children.

Isolde Adams and her two teenagers have been at the shelter for just over a year. She spent nine years at another shelter before moving.

“I was always looking for something better. Here we get to live in the same place. I get to be a full-time mother. Here I get to be me without pretending,” said Adams.

She said she became homeless due to a combination of domestic violence and substance abuse.

She now works as a barista at a coffee shop at the shelter’s upskilling programme, and has also learned how to make brownies and to use an air fryer.

“I found my niche. Who would have thought that I would make coffee? I’ve learned how to take ownership for my wrongdoings. I try to keep to myself and do what is expected of me.”

For three years she lived in the bush in Sir Lowry’s Pass.

Her son now plays provincial rugby for Western Province and is a youth leader at the local church.

“I just have this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. You have to pinch yourself,” she said.

Isolde Adams works at the coffee shop at the shelter, where she lives with her two teenage children.

General manager Wayne Spammer says the family shelter started during the Covid Level 5 lockdown in 2020.

“It was crazy because now you are trying to house 100 people. You couldn’t buy beds [due to shops being closed], but we managed to source mattresses and blankets. The first couple of months were very rough,” said Spammer.

“A child needs their father and mother. It would have been easier to say let’s just take the mother and kids. The kids need their father.”

Single fathers with children have found refuge at the shelter over the years.

Spammer said security needs to be tight because there are children in their care, thus the shelter has an electric fence, cameras, and 24-hour security support.

Applicants must take a drug test. If it’s positive, they must participate in counselling programmes. Social workers are on site.

Spammer said the shelter runs on government funding and private donations.

Speaking of homelessness and its stigma, he said, “It could be you tomorrow. I had a lady who used to donate to the shelter. She lost her business, and two years later she was living in my shelter … A lot of them [the residents] are down on their luck.”

Situated in Somerset West, this is one of few family shelters in South Africa. It is secured with an electric fence and cameras, and there is always a social worker on site.

The 2022 Census counted 9,743 homeless people in the Western Cape. At the time of the count, there were 3,310 people in shelters in the province.

Esther Lewis, at the Western Cape Social Development Department, said the department funds 36 shelters with 2,288 beds per night for homeless adults. Between them, the shelters have 39 social workers and 27 social auxiliary workers, who help with reunification and psychosocial support.

“There are many reasons that people find themselves living on the street, ranging from addiction to abuse, behavioural or mental health issues, and much more. Therefore, there will always be a demand for shelters for adults who are homeless,” said Lewis.

“People being homeless is a very complex matter that needs intervention from various role-players.”

“Depending on the availability of funds, additional shelters for families are being looked into,” she said.

One of the family bedrooms.

Anelle Erasmus, of Mould Empower Serve, said there was a need for emergency shelters, family shelters, and transitional housing for the coming winter months.

“These options can provide different levels of assistance to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Family shelters, where the whole family can stay intact, are crucial for providing a safe and supportive environment for families experiencing homelessness,” she added.

“These shelters are essential because they help keep families together during times of crisis, provide a stable environment for children, offer support services for parents, and help break the cycle of homelessness,” said Erasmus.

Valerie Govender from U-Turn homeless ministries, said shelters and safe spaces help to mitigate and manage the problem in the short term. However, they “do little to solve the problem long-term unless they are accompanied by proper rehabilitation programmes”.

“We need to emphasise that unless people are helped to leave the streets and become healthy, independent, contributing citizens, the homeless problem is just going to get bigger,” she said.

Govender said U-Turn was working with the City of Cape Town to develop a more comprehensive, rehabilitative strategy. “This has been the key missing piece in most responses to homelessness worldwide,” she said.

Classrooms have been divided into numerous rooms.

Earlier this month the City opened a new Safe Space in Durbanville to accommodate up to 40 people. The City says it is also planning to open a 300-bed Safe Space in Green Point.

The City confirmed that more evictions of homeless camps had taken place in central Cape Town, conducted by the Sheriff and SAPS, with City social development officials and law enforcement supporting.

“The City helps around 3,500 people a year through shelter placements or referrals to social services. We are also investing over R220-million in the next three years to expand dignified transitional shelter,” stated Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis.

Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis during the opening of the Durbanville safe space earlier this month.

TOPICS:  Homeless Housing

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