Planting seeds of hope

Employee in Green Market Square during a street clean up.

Jesse Laitinen, founder of Streetscapes, explains that the idea around creating this project was to address the growing problem of homelessness in Cape Town. A problem that extends beyond the simple physical issue of not having a home, and thus a problem that should be addressed on multiple levels.

Streetscapes provides an opportunity for these forgotten people to rebuild their lives through a ‘hand-up’ and not a handout, as Jesse explains.They are given the opportunity to work in the garden, earning R2400 per month after six months, providing them with resources to move off the streets and even address substance abuse problems.

The opportunity to work provides them with a sense of dignity, grows their skills and frees them from the demoralising vicious circle of idleness. One of Cape Town’s major concerns is homelessness. But the sad irony is that the majority of people living on the streets in this cosmopolitan city actually have homes.

Achmat Sallie tending to vegetables at the Trafalgar High School garden.

The way most people view the homeless is that these are unfortunate people who do not have homes and that is why they have ended up on the street but the real reason stems from deep social issues that bubble beneath the surface of our society. With that in mind, it would be more accurate to refer to those on the street as havenless rather than homeless.

“Everybody gets packed into a household, the families can’t absorb these numbers. So, it’s not truly an issue of homelessness, it’s an issue of housing,” says Laitinen.

In households where there is mental illness, mistreatment or abuse, or in communities riddled with gangsterism, some people opt to live on the streets where, ironically, it is safer. And in some cases, there is simply not enough space for everyone and some family members are, quite literally, left out in the cold.

Gardeners at work at the Roeland Street garden.

Jesse points out that homelessness is the result of a host of complex issues that might even span a lifetime and cannot necessarily be simply understood. The workers all express that employment has positively assisted them in managing their lives, but that finding a job seemed like an improbable dream before and without it they had nothing to motivate their progression in life.

Streetscapes provides jobs in street cleanups along Green Market Square and Long Street, and bin collections from nearby restaurants, as well as managing three gardens: one in Gardens next to Food Lover’s Market, one at Trafalgar High School, and another in Vredehoek.

The income the employees receive per month comes from the stipends secured from the City. Although providing employment and income for the homeless is an important part of Streetscapes, it is merely the first step to addressing their real agenda — solving the problems attached to homelessness, petty crimes and other social concerns that have consequences throughout the city.

 

Rows of well-tended vegetables.

Workers get paid according to participation. For the 25 plus employees, the work they do is a form of rehabilitation. What is more important than drug or alcohol abuse at this voluntary program is behaviour. Destructive behaviour is unacceptable. They have a strict ‘change or go’ system in place.

Jesse believes in teaching boundaries that helps one take responsibility. Therefore, should one of the employees take or steal something, they are taught to either bring it back, replace it or pay for it. In this way they are taught accountability while being allowed to make mistakes.

Jesse believes the correctional service is not correctional, it’s demotivating, and dehumanizing. Though she agrees with criminals being taken through the justice system, she also thinks many cases simply need to address the problem of anti-social behaviour. At Streetscapes they have seen the results of following this method. Through employment, the workers have found purpose and fulfillment.

Not-so-scary crow.

For those who are in better social and financial positions, one might overlook or even be frustrated by being stuck in a bank queue. But for those who never even had the opportunity to enter a bank this could be a highlight. One employee quirkily chirped that queueing at the bank was the best part of his week because finally he had a reason to be inside a bank.

Through the meetings offered by Streetscapes from Monday to Friday at 12:30 – 13:30, the employees are motivated to have drug-free lifestyles. They are equipped with skills to better manage their lives and curb anti-social behaviour.

“We concentrate on scheduling, budgeting, how to deal with situations that [are] beyond your control, emotions, effective communication, structuring and routine,” said Faizal Juta, the manager of the meetings.

Roeland Street garden.

The results keep getting better. The employees have reconnected with their families and are now able to financially support their children. Over 70% of them had managed to get off the streets. Moreover, drug use is ever decreasing.

Without external urging, they decrease their usage on their own. Streetscapes focuses on a lot more than mere job creation. This multilayered initiative looks to turn problems into win-win opportunities for all parties involved.

“We also give everybody a chance to be their best selves,” said Laitinen.