As city-dwellers, homelessness is something we’re confronted with on a daily basis. We see it in the bundles of blankets under the bridge and in the flash of a shelter card as a young man asks if we have R2 to spare.
Yet, despite its overwhelming presence, we seem to keep homelessness at arm’s length – a familiar theoretical concept, rather than a very real state of being.
So, when you meet someone who’s been living on the street for 40-odd years, it just doesn’t compute. Surely homelessness is something far more fleeting? Surely a lifetime is too long to spend sans a roof over your head?
For Jesse Laitinen and Khulisa’s StreetScapes team, however, these are the types of stories they hear from their beneficiaries every day.
Roeland Street garden
We’re standing outside the famous Fruit & Veg City on Roeland Street, peering through the sturdy chicken wire fence at a tidy adjacent veggie garden. The wind is howling, as it often does in this area, and Jesse points out that this was one of the main challenges in piloting their Gardens of Life project here.
“Its exposure to wind, as well as the possibility of people breaking in and stealing, were two of the main concerns raised at the beginning of the project. However, neither have proven to be a problem over the past few months,” Jesse says cheerfully.
At about 120m², the garden is by no means huge, yet required a fair amount of effort to get it into any sort of workable state.
“We officially started preparing this plot of land for the garden in 2015, and it took a whole six months to clear the ground! In the process we removed two truckloads of rubble and 260 bags of rubbish,” Jesse explains.
Finally, after the excavation of large boulders, the ground was ready for planting and the recruitment for gardeners among the homeless men and women living in the area began.
Jesse says that they have 10 people on their payroll, who have gone from being completely destitute, to getting a stipend of more than R1 000 a month. While we’re chatting, one of the parking lot dwellers – a man with grey hair and almost translucent brown eyes – comes over to talk to Jesse.
She explains that he’s been living in this very parking lot for close on 40 years and that being able to work in the garden doesn’t only offer him some financial gain, but also a purpose and, closely related to that, a sense of dignity.
“He’s worked his hours for the month and knows he will only be paid for those, but continues to clock in every day on a voluntary basis.”
More than any monetary reward, it seems to be StreetScapes’ ability to nurture a sense of belonging that keeps their employees consistently interested.
The garden is open to the public from 8am to 1pm from Mondays to Fridays and from 11am to 2pm on Saturdays. Visitors are welcome to harvest their own fresh veggies for R12 a bunch.
Trafalgar school garden
Following the success on Roeland Street, StreetScapes is about to launch their second gardening project at the nearby Trafalgar High School.
This time round, they will be working in partnership with the Skin Renewal Clinic, who will not only be offering a financial boost, but also sending 100 volunteers to help prepare and plant the 700m² garden as part of their corporate social investment project.
Taking place on Sunday, 23 October, the big gardening day will be held in conjunction with a festive food and craft market in front of the school. Jesse and her team are hoping that the craft market will take on a life of its own over the next few months and become a regular event.
With the help of Skin Renewal Clinic’s volunteers, the garden will be ready to receive twenty brand new StreetScapes employees on Monday morning, who will be receiving similar stipends to those working in the Roeland Street garden.
Jesse adds that this is just the beginning and that they are hoping to identify more vacant land that can be transformed into food gardens throughout Cape Town.
A whopping 8 000m² in Culemborg has already been earmarked and they are hoping to start the first phase of preparations early next year.
How to get involved
Simple and easy, head on over to the Roeland Street garden to buy your fresh veggies for R12 a bunch between 8am and 1pm from Mondays to Fridays, and 11am to 2pm on Saturdays.
Some of the produce from the Roeland Street garden goes toward the Dignity Sandwiches project, which offers corporates the opportunity to order fresh and healthy lunch sandwiches, pre-made by StreetScapes employees. It’s a brand new project, so their capacity is still quite small. However, Jesse believes that they will grow from strength to strength over the coming months. Be sure to get in touch with StreetScapes to find out how you can order lunch sandwiches for your office.
Attend the craft market
Be part of the celebrations this Sunday at Trafalgar High School between 10am and 4pm.