She welcomed us into her office with a phone wedged between her shoulder and ear. When the call was taken off hold, she became a guardian wielding her whip in defense of an employee wronged by an electrician. In that moment I realised what made Karen Cain put on her cape — people.
As the current manager of the Service Dining Rooms (SDR), Karen brought about order and harmony in the charity’s daily operations. It took some time and even more effort, but she succeeded in ensuring every patron was served equally.
She grew the existing token system in association with StreetScapes Gardens, Carpenter’s Shop and a local clinic that she started. The aim being empowering homeless.
A token earns the patrons a meal, otherwise they are charged R1. If they work in the garden, shower at Carpenter’s, get their blood pressure checked or get tested for HIV/AIDS they get tokens.
“It kind of [an] incentive for them to do something instead of sitting around,” she said.
Karen previously worked at the Haven Night Shelter, for 19 years, and at the Carpenter’s Shop, where she helped start the ablution system.
For 28 years Karen has dedicated her life to serving the down and out. She’s worked with child welfare, the government, drug addicts, and in private practice. However, the group of people she has been unable to move away from was the homeless.
When asked why she sincerely replied,
“I can’t do anything else … It’s such easy social work compared to other social work.
“You don’t have to go to court, you don’t have to remove children, you don’t see abused children … you don’t do home visits and see the abuse and the incest … No. I’m passed that, thank you.”
Before moving to Cape Town, she lived and worked in Port Shepstone. The town was one large railway station lined with houses and what she dealt with there traumatised her for life.
“I was the only social worker for 40km. What was going on in those railway houses… the incest…” she said, unable to continue.
As I looked at her face, I wondered about the stories each line could tell. How many were formed when she fought to start a child abuse unit to remedy the injustice in Port Shepstone? How many more came from moving to a city she and her husband didn’t know? Which ones spoke of suffering from postnatal depression after the birth of both her children? Maybe they stretched out and blurred together to such a point that the social work and personal lines became one. Both cut deep, both were family.
“I can’t do anything else,” she said again.
Of course not. Her whole life has been about being family with the people she encounters and making life a little more bearable for them. Even if it is by fighting a battle against an inefficient electrician.