African liveability Housing

Helping the homeless find their way home


The idea that no one should have to live on our streets, enshrined in the vision of The Haven Night Shelter Organisation, is something that almost everyone would support wholeheartedly, but not everyone understands exactly what an organisation such as The Haven does to turn people’s lives around.

The Haven, with its 14 shelters throughout the Western Cape, including an old age home with 118 residents, is one of the organisations being promoted by the Cape Town Partnership as part of its Give Responsibly campaign.

One of the problems in Cape Town is that many of our citizens are from faith cultures that encourage them to give to those who are in need. The challenge for the organisations that are part of the Give Responsibly campaign, is to make it easier for people to meet their moral obligations in a way which helps to solve the problem rather than exacerbating it.

“The Give Responsibly campaign encourages people to go beyond the kind of knee-jerk reaction that sees them just handing over money to beggars. We want to encourage people to rather support the organisations that are helping destitute people to change their lives,” said Pat Eddy, Social Development Manager for the Central City Improvement District (CCID).

“This need not necessarily always be monetary support as organisations also value the expertise, time and skills that individuals are often able to offer”

The plight of street children in our cities is often in the media, but in fact there are far more adults than children living on our streets. It has become a cliché, but the fact remains that these people need a hand up rather than a hand out, They need to become active participants in any intervention processes that involve them. Organisations such as The Haven believe in encouraging a greater sense of responsibility from the homeless, acknowledging the positive contributions they have for society and at the same time holding them responsible for the negative impacts of their behaviour.

“Many people think that the shelter encourages homelessness by making it easier for people on the streets,” said Wahieda Suliman, Office Manager at The Haven head office. “But they don’t understand what it is that we are trying to do. Our mission is to get the homeless to a home. We are focused on helping people to turn their lives around and to get off the streets for ever.”

The Haven, which was founded in 1978, provided services to 6322 people between April 2008 and March 2009. Of those, 573 were reunited with their families and 1203 were helped to get a job and their own accommodation.

“It looks like a small figure but individually the impact is huge. And remember, it is a process: some of those who are not a success story this year, may be next year,” Suliman said. “We keep trying because we know our method works. It just doesn’t work every time!”

Besides accepting people who come directly to their shelters, The Haven also has a fieldworker programme: four people work in the CBD and three in the Southern Suburbs. They go out and speak to the homeless people with the aim of getting them off the street. In particular they look out for people who have recently become homeless, those who aren’t hardened yet.

“We want to get them off the street as soon as possible, before they start accepting this as a way of life and thinking that there is no other alternative,” Suliman said. “We are basically trying to say to people “there is another way. You don’t have to live like this and you don’t have to give up on life.”

Many people come to Cape Town on the promise of work, and they would go home if they had the means to do so. So in these cases, the difference between being homeless and being at home is the cost of a bus fare which, after assessment, the Haven provides.

“We have to realise that being homeless means that you don’t have the options that so many of us take for granted. To us it may seem that R250 for a bus ticket home is so little, but to many people that R250 is an insurmountable mountain to climb,” said Suliman.

The Haven also tries to follow up with the people once they go home, and to do a thorough evaluation of the home situation before they are sent back. “We have helped people who have lived on the streets for 20 or 30 years, and it is so wonderful to see them find their way back home again,” she said. Anyone who knocks on the door of the Haven will be helped. No money is needed to get in. If someone is unemployed, the Haven guarantees their services for five days. The shelter then provides a two hour job every day, for which the person earns R20. Of that, R10 pays for the shelter .

“We call this the client welfare programme: it encourages people to pay for what they get and discourages begging,” Suliman said.

In the shelter environment, people are fed, clothed and given medication. Then the Haven tries to find employment, so the individual can start moving on. If you have a job that does not pay you enough to survive, there are also second phase shelters which provide the people with accommodation at a cost dependent on how much they earn. This payment also gives them breakfast, a packed lunch and supper.

Everyone that comes in is given a plan of action, drawn up with the social worker.

“We encourage people to get up on their feet as soon as possible: for their own good as well as to make space for other people who need help,” she said.
And of course, there are always people who don’t fit into the shelter and don’t want to be bound by its rules. But sometimes all someone needs is to be given a second chance at another shelter.

The rules are strict, and are placed in clear view at all the shelters in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa. One strict rule is that no drunkenness is allowed, but there is a “cooler room” where people will wait until they are sober.

We’d really like to remove the stigma of homelessness,” Suliman said. “Many of us put ourselves on a different level to the people on the streets. We feel sorry for people, we pity them, but we don’t see them as equals. And sometimes that is our biggest problem – we need to see them as fellow humans, and to remember that “there, but for the grace of God, go I”.

So, rather than giving a couple of rand to someone on the street, why not buy a stock of Haven Passports, which you can give out to people in need? The Haven Passport gives a homeless person entry to one of the Haven shelters where they will be provided with food, a hot shower, clean clothes, a bed if one is available, and access to a social worker.

Haven passports are available at all Haven shelters as well as at the Observatory Library for R10 each.

For other methods of giving, visit The Haven website at or call 021 425 4700 or email

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