How has lockdown given new hope to a group of ladies previously living on the street? What are they now dreaming for their lives? NANINE STEENKAMP found out what’s been happening at a little church in Cape Town’s Kirstenhof
But first, sit back and relax to 40 seconds of the ladies’ dance therapy!
New friends! In lockdown, Phinius and Katlyn (standing) are sharing a home with (from left to right) Janine, Leticia, Natalie, Helen and Lizzie, some of whom have been without a home for over 20 years. A further three ladies have moved in since this photo was taken in mid-July | Photo: Nina du Preez
South African Phinius Sebatsane (32) and his American wife Katlyn (24) have been working with some of Cape Town’s homeless people for nearly two years. Here, they explain how they came to offer shelter and new opportunities to a group of ladies living on the mountain near their Muizenberg home – and the ladies share their new dreams
When Covid came to Cape Town, the government put up a number of homeless people at a camp in Strandfontein. Katlyn and I already knew some of them from our ministry to the tented community on the Muizenberg mountainside, as we have been building a relationship with them over the past three years. We were very happy to discover that they’d weaned themselves off drugs and alcohol while in the camp and were keen to continue a sober lifestyle.
We teamed up with U-Turn Homeless Ministries, which has a long history of ministering to people on the streets. The nearby Church of the Holy Spirit (CHS) in Kirstenhof had closed for physical services due to the pandemic, and was happy to offer its hall as a temporary shelter.
Church of the Holy Spirit, a small Cape Town church that’s punching big in lockdown as a home for the homeless | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
A team from the church transformed it from a hall to a sleeping, living and cooking area for the ladies coming off the Muizenberg mountainside
The church had already formed a ‘solidarity team’ to help people during lockdown, and this team transformed the hall into a sleeping and dining/relaxing area, using bookshelves to create separate sleeping cubicles. They put together welcome boxes with toiletries, sweet treats, face masks, sanitisers and welcome cards, and brought in pot plants to make it homey. They turned the crèche into a washing area with access to a bathroom, and installed a washing machine. The upstairs youth room was converted into a cosy lounge with a TV, couches, and a box of blankets for classes.
So since June, we’ve been able to offer the ladies a rehabilitation home and we are seeing how far we can go with rehab, upskilling them and reconciling them with their families. And they’ve become our friends.
These ladies long for a place to belong
Our new friends didn’t choose this life. It’s embarrassing to stand on the street and beg, but it’s become a way to survive. Many have experienced trauma, sexual and physical abuse – first in their homes and also on the street. They need a lot of love. Some have been on the street for 15 or 20 years. So, it’s a huge change to get off the street, learn how to cook, make your bed, clean, not hustle. We’ve realised that, more than food and shelter, they need connection and relationships. These ladies long for a place to belong.
Many people think getting off the street is easy and it’s not. People say, ‘Why don’t you just go to the shelter?’ A lot of shelters focus on physical needs but don’t get into the illnesses and drug addiction that trap people: if you knew the trauma, addictions and mental illnesses they have to fight, you wouldn’t blame them for staying where they are. Rehabilitation is not an easy fix but a journey, a process of falling down and getting up. You need to help homeless people heal and recover. This has been our journey with them: to present them with some hope.
The way we all interact with homeless people makes a difference. They’re humans, not animals. We encourage people to give them their best because that does a lot for their dignity. One day, someone gave us a broken house appliance and one of the ladies said, ‘So that’s what they think of us – we’re broken, so we deserve broken things’. I believe that when Jesus looks at these ladies, he sees good and we want them to see themselves like that, to know they have value and that God loves them.
After some time, Phinius and Katlyn moved into the church to ‘do life’ with their new friends. ‘The ladies didn’t choose this life, it’s embarrassing to beg,’ says Phinius. ‘Our goal is to get them to take ownership of their lives.’ Says Katlyn: ‘Seeing the ladies change in just a few weeks is very rewarding.’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
We don’t want to tell them what to do
As time went on, we realised the best way to help our friends is to do what’s best for them. It’ not about what’s best for the programme, because programmes don’t change people, relationships that do. We didn’t just want to come in the morning like project managers and tell them what to do, they need community. So we left our home to live with them for four months, eat with them, do life with them, just as Jesus came as a man and lived amongst people to save them.
This has been a season of serving them, doing practical things with them, artistic work, drawing, painting, encouraging them to share their dreams, such as, ‘I want to reconcile with my family, I want a job’. Two other couples are also now living here with them and we’re all trying to model family life to them. It’s been overwhelming but it seems to be working.
Janine, Natalie, Leticia and Helen in front of the church’s oil paintings that depict stories of a prodigal son and prodigal daughter. ‘We want them to know they can run back home to us if they mess up, just like the biblical prodigal son,’ says Phinius | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Some of the ladies had the chance to learn how to cook for the first time in their lives | Photo: Nina du Preez
Our goal is to empower the ladies to think for themselves. To take ownership of their lives, not to rely on us. It isn’t easy because most of them are on the leash of an abusive relationship. We give them the tools to cut the leash off, but they need to decide to do it.
We have permission to use the church hall until the end of August. We told the ladies that it’s a home, not a prison. If you want to go back to your normal life, that’s up to you. So far, three chose to leave. It’s all a process and we realise not everyone’s ready to leave their life on the street. But we prayed they would come back, and we keep our door open. A lot of homeless people feel like hiding when they mess up. We want them to know they can run back home to us. One of them has just returned saying it was because it was of the love she experienced at the church, which is such good news! Another also returned after leaving, and two more new ladies have just joined us.
I know what it feels like to be rejected
My background as an orphan motivated me to work with homeless people. I know what it feels like to be rejected and at the bottom, and then to joyfully realise that you are a child of God. The challenge is to get the community on board without judging people on the street, to understand they’re using drugs because of trauma and mental illnesses.
Our goal now is to create a service centre and shelter in Muizenberg for our homeless friends. This will enable us to continue our work, to identify, rehabilitate, assist, upskill them, help them find jobs and reconcile with their families if they want to.
It’s great seeing the ladies visit their homeless friends and hearing them say ‘You’ve changed! You look amazing! You’re different!’ We hope this will motivate change in many.’
The church changed its youth room to a cosy place where the ladies can learn new skills and discover a new identity and dignity | Photo: Nina du Preez
‘We encourage the ladies to share their dreams,’ says Phinius | Photo: Nina du Preez
On Mandela Day, the ladies were given makeovers courtesy of My Natural Hair and NPO Help a Girl, Help a Girl | Photos: Phinius Sebatsane
Seeing the ladies change into who they really are in just a few weeks has been very rewarding. They look, speak and behave like completely different people. One lady went to Muizenberg and back and said, ‘I saw a bag of tik [methamphetamine] on the ground and I didn’t pick it up!’ For her that was a huge victory, and one that we celebrated. It’s a small start, but big choices can follow.
This isn’t a one-size-fits-all programme. The ladies are individuals and deserve an individual approach. For some, it’s going further into a more formal rehabilitation centre, such as Freeway, with whom we’re partnering. For others, it’s family reunification. We’ve been trying to help them with CVs and interview skills, so they can look for work if they feel able. We’re hoping that by the end of August, most of them will be able to take the next step by themselves.
Phinius and I started this ministry to people on the streets in South Africa nearly two years ago, after we got married. When I first put foot in Africa, I felt, ‘This is my home.’ When I met Phinius, it was so weird to think that God was calling us in the same direction from opposite sides of the world!’
Now, let’s hear from the ladies themselves!
LETICIA GORDON (42) is from Steenberg and has been homeless for more than 20 years. ‘The thing I love most about the programme is the food. I have a dog called Piper and I now have a dream to work with dogs full time, maybe at the SPCA. I would never have thought I could cope this long without drugs but I know God is giving me strength. I still struggle with Fridays, which were usually party days. I always believed that I was alone but now I believe someone is with me.’
Photo: Leentjie du Preez
HELEN TROMP (45) grew up in Retreat and has two daughters, aged 14 and 21. ‘I’ve been using tik [methamphetamine] and mandrax for 18 years. I enjoy everything about the programme, and I feel I have come closer to God. My dream is to live in a big house in Constantia with my daughters and drive my own car!’
Photo: Leentjie du Preez
‘AUNTIE LIZZIE’ SEPTEMBER (50) grew up in Valhalla park and has been homeless for many years. ‘Why I became homeless is a long story. I have learnt that as long as you have respect and discipline, you can help yourself out. People can do many things to help others, but it’s up to every person whether they want to be helped or not. My dream is to live with my children, Maxwell and Victoria.’
Photo: Leentjie du Preez
JANINE STYNDER (37) is originally from Mitchells Plain and has been homeless for 15 years. ‘I fell pregnant in my last year of school when I made friends with the party crowd. Now I’m back on the path of righteousness. I am looking forward to my life with all the progress I have made. I am quite happy and excited that I’ve got this chance. There is hope after homelessness; it’s not the end of your road! My dream now is to become a missionary.’
Photo: Leentjie du Preez
NATALE YOUDE (26) was born and raised in Cape Town and has been homeless for two years. ‘It’s hard to be away from my family, but I enjoy the programme. There are many people who need help, who will also appreciate this opportunity we have. My dream is to become a teacher and foster my sister’s children, as she is no longer alive.’
Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Community: Brendan Fox, Church of the Holy Spirit team leader, with the church’s new residents. ‘Our vision has always been to be a blessing to the communities around us,’ he says. ‘We’d already been praying for a way to use our building during lockdown, and had started to clear the hall so it could be used for something. When we heard Phinius was looking for a space to accommodate some ladies, it was a perfect match!’
More scenes from the ladies’ new lives for you to enjoy, captured by Leentjie and Nina du Preez 🙂