Hope amidst the stark reality of homelessness

One simply has to make your way through Cape Town, Johannesburg, or Tshwane’s CBD to experience the stark reality of homelessness in our nation. It’s impossible to ignore. It is hard to establish the exact number of homeless people in South Africa due to the high rate of mobility within the homeless population. However, it is estimated that there are between 100,000 to 200,000 homeless people in the country. Homelessness is a complex situation that is often interconnected with other social ills such as heavy drinking, drug use and crime.

‘The main causes of homelessness in South Africa are broken relationships, unemployment, poverty, limited variety of affordable housing solutions, substance abuse and mental health issues,’ says Ilse Maartens of Mould Empower Serve (MES), an organisation that works with homeless and vulnerable people. MES aims to empower people to live independent, sustainable and meaningful lives.

The homeless and COVID-19

With limited job opportunities, shelter or reliable accommodation, those who permanently live on the streets live from hand to mouth.

‘With the onset of COVID-19, the plight of the homeless was further exacerbated and many more found themselves on the street when they lost their income. The need thus quadrupled,’ says Ilse.

Finding food and a place to sleep is a constant challenge for the homeless, even more so when the world around them went into lockdown overnight. Those who managed to get by solely on the generosity or the discarding of those more fortunate, were left isolated – meaning neither food nor money handouts. What followed was the government’s decision to create various temporary shelters all over the country, but with limited success. The actual numbers of homeless people were much higher than the government estimated, leading to overcrowding of the make-shift shelters, as well as a lack of food, bedding and sanitation. People were living in extreme close quarters while they were supposed to social distance to prevent the spread of the virus.

NPOs join forces to help the homeless

Amidst the hardships endured by so many, our nation’s non-profit organisations truly served as a beacon of hope. Many of these organisations quickly joined forces and shared resources to address the needs of vulnerable communities, including the homeless.

‘We [MES] formed an alliance with other partner organisations such as U-Turn, Khulisa Social Solutions (Streetscapes project), Ladles of Love and Straatwerk, among others, and pooled our limited resources in order to have greater impact in more areas. When one of the organisations managed to get masks, they shared it with those struggling to find masks. The same went for hand sanitiser,’ says Ilse. ‘We immediately discussed the topics of food security, personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as housing for homeless people, and formed committees to run these three areas. We also developed standing operating procedures to make the running of various sleeping and feeding sites effective so that everyone could benefit,’ she explains.

This alliance also took it upon themselves to assist smaller organisations and helped them with their food parcel deliveries, among other things. In an aim to help the alliance be more effective, U-Turn – an organisation that equips people with skills and work opportunities to overcome homelessness – launched a section on their website where members of the public could indicate in real time where they spotted homeless people who might need food.

‘We would not have been able to do any of this without the help of our partners in government, church and business areas,’ says Ilse.

What can we do?

The issue of homelessness requires a lot of wisdom, compassion and understanding. As individuals and a community we can challenge ourselves and each other to be more intentional about how we engage and endeavour to make a contribution towards social change.

Instead of the occasional hand-out which often leads to further substance abuse, we need a longer term approach. Some approaches that are more effective and sustainable than handouts include:

– Voucher systems which help to eliminate cash handouts. U-Turn, for example, says that its vouchers provide more than food and clothing, they are tickets to support and rehabilitation services for a journey to employment. In the Western Cape, the WCEN COVID Task Team and RESPOND Coalition, supported by The Warehouse, came up with an innovative SMS cash voucher system. These vouchers can be used at any Shoprite, Pick’nPay, Usave, Checkers or Boxer stores by beneficiaries who were identified by local community leaders and church networks.
– Referring people to organisations who offer essentials but also social support services be it rehabilitation, family reunification, skills development or education.
– Supporting NPOs on an on-going basis through regular donations – be it financial or food and clothing donations.

South Africa’s non-profit sector plays a critical role in our society, helping to address societal issues like hunger, housing and unemployment. The COVID-19 crisis has thrust the NPO sector into the forefront of the country’s fight against these social issues with non-profits providing lifesaving support for some of our most vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Their efforts aren’t going unnoticed. If anything, the value of the non-profit sector in supporting our nation’s people has been highlighted. Many private sector funders are realising just how much knowledge NPOs have at a grassroots level, and that their understanding of the needs of specific communities is invaluable when making funding and CSI decisions. In the end, we are going to need everyone – NPOs, business, civil society and government to work together to rebuild an inclusive and prosperous nation.

The Gap Fund: Standing in the gap for our NPOs

The Mergon Foundation has a long history of carefully selecting exceptional NPO partners who have a track record of delivering essential services to communities in need, with partnership bases in South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa.

The Mergon Gap Fund was established in March 2020 as a distribution platform for small grants to financially support indispensable NPOs in the midst of our global pandemic. The Gap fund is primarily focused on a long-term sustainable view. Its purpose is to assist NPOs who are in dire need of financial support to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic, so that post COVID-19 there are enough well-established NPOs who can step in and start rebuilding our nation and its people. The Gap Fund has to date received close to R7.3 million in contributions and has been able to make more than 95 fund allocations. If you’d like to join us in standing in the gap for our NPOs, you can donate to the Gap Fund here.

Juan’s story showcases how NPOs are truly a lifeline for many. During lockdown he experienced first-hand the care, concern and help of two NPOs who worked together to not only feed him and get him off the streets, but also reunite with his family, join in a skills development course and start on a journey towards a meaningful life.


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