‘We don’t grow plants, we grow people’

Streetscapes’ urban gardens offer people living on the streets a way to reintegrate with society

Kaylin Mrbral was living on the streets for a few years. Working at Streetscapes, Mrbral is earning some money and is now living in a shelter with her boyfriend.
Image: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

Nazeema Jacobs was homeless for five years. She had never imagined herself sleeping under plastic.

“I come from a decent background,” she says. But drugs and clubs left her living on the streets of Cape Town. Eventually, with the help of her cousin, she started volunteering at Streetscapes, an initiative that creates work for people living on the streets.

Streetscapes sees itself as way to reintegrate homeless people into society with new opportunities. Started in 2015, it now employs more than 50 people, most of whom are homeless. It offers an array of work, including gardening and cleaning services.

There are three gardening sites in the city, four cleaning projects, and a safe house in Kuilsriver, which includes a garden and workshop where woodwork is done.

Jacobs started working in the urban gardening project three years ago in Vredehoek. When she started she “knew nothing”, she says. All she did was clean the garden and water the plants. But now she is an all-rounder who also supervises and helps motivate staff. Finding some routine and a steady income through Streetscapes, Jacobs is back in touch with her family and is living with her mother.

Jesse Laitenen, who manages the project, says: “We don’t grow plants, we grow people.”

Workers get paid about R2,000 a month and work according to their own capacity. But “if you don’t come, you don’t get paid”, says Laitenen.

The urban garden in Vredehoek grows many vegetables depending on the season. These include kale, cauliflower, spring onion and beetroot.
Image: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

Kaylin Mrbral dropped out of school in grade 7 because of problems with her family and drug use. For a number of years she was living on the street. Now at the age of 25 and working in one of Streetscapes’s urban gardens, Mrbral has found a new lease on life. She said that working again has changed her perspective. She feels that she has “taken a step forward … to be a better person” and has been off drugs for almost a year.

Mrbral is now living in a shelter with her boyfriend. Although it has been difficult, she is starting to rebuild a relationship with her family. She could move back home to Manenberg to live with her parents, but she doesn’t want to. She says: “There’s gangsterism and violence.”

Laitenen said there was a need to create entry-level work which gave people “meaning and purpose”.

Nazeema Jacobs (left) and Kaylin Mrbral work at the Streetscapes urban gardening project. Jacobs was living on the street but is now living with her mother. Jacobs completed matric and wants to study home-based nursing. “I love looking after old people,” she said. The only thing keeping her back is a lack of funds.
Image: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

Streetscapes depends on donations and the sale of its vegetables and services. The project is under the umbrella of Khulisa Social Solutions, a non-profit organisation, and it is a joint operation that includes the Central City Improvement District and the city of Cape Town.

More than 6,000 people are living on the streets according to a study concluded in November 2018 by the city.

This article was first published by GroundUp.


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