U-Turn pulls out of ’Plain

Raymond Bowman, U-Turn’s change readiness operations manager and CEO Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt outside the office in Town Centre.

U-Turn, a non-profit organisation that helps the homeless get off the streets, says a lack of funding is one of the key reasons behind its decision to close its Mitchell’s Plain office.

The organisation says 80% of those who graduate from its programmes remain sober, housed and employed over the long term and it claims to have helped more than 600 homeless people at its Mitchell’s Plain centre so far this year.

The office at Town Centre closed last Wednesday.

U-Turn CEO Jean-Ray Knighton-Fitt said a City funding cut, the inadequacy of the premises and difficulties in finding shelter and rehabilitation partners in the area had driven the decision to close the office, which had provided daytime support services to the homeless.

U-Turn has a head office in Kenilworth and its other support centres are in Claremont, Muizenberg and Parow.

“After the Cape Town CBD, Mitchell’s Plain has the highest concentration of homelessness in the city, so it’s very important for us to be here. When our income dropped unexpectedly low in January we had to make cuts across the organisation. We considered closing the centre then, as it was the most expensive centre to run per capita, and also faced its own particular set of challenges,” Mr Knighton-Fitt said.

“In the past, almost half the money for these centres came from the City. In May we discovered that this year the City would only be funding centres that provide beds, not daytime services like we had. This was a huge blow and we realised we would have to close one of our centres in order to keep the others open.”

U-Turn’s Mitchell’s Plain office was previously based in Eastridge, but it closed in 2021. Mr Knighton-Fitt said it had only had funding for six months and some homeless people had stayed away due to gang affiliations.

The Town Centre office opened in August 2021 and had been seen as a more neutral venue by those harbouring concerns about gang affiliations, but it had still been far from ideal, said Mr Knighton-Fitt. However, the organisation had struggled to find alternative premises.

Mr Knighton-Fitt said there could be almost 3000 homeless people in Mitchell’s Plain, as the numbers had likely tripled since the start of Covid, so it was vital for U-Turn to have a presence in the area and the organisation planned to return.

“We have to reopen in Mitchell’s Plain. We’re already planning how to do this, but I don’t think it’s going to be a short process. We need a better central venue with satellites operating in hot-spot areas like Tafelsig, Lentegeur and Woodlands.

“We also need a facility that can provide safe sleeping space at night. Most importantly, we need to secure funding for at least three years to make it viable.”

Carmen Dickenson, manager of U-Turn Mitchell’s Plain, said: “To see the transformation in our clients is phenomenal. I got a bit emotional as I worry about them on the streets now that we’ve closed.”

Winter was always the toughest time, and there was a great need for blankets, food and other essentials, she said.

“Our services have helped so many people on the streets of Mitchell’s Plain. One service centre in Mitchell’s Plain is too little.”

The organisation’s change-readiness operations manager, Raymond Bowman, described the closure of the office as “a sad day for the family of U-Turn”, but added, “We are optimistic for the future. We trust in a greater door that will open.”

Fabian Pillay, 38, from Westridge, was addicted to drugs for 17 years and he slept in a churchyard after his parents threw him out, but he graduated from U-Turn’s programme a month ago and now works for the organisation.

“I thought I was going to die from drugs. I believe that God gives us opportunities, but it’s up to us to do something. Town Centre was my stomping ground. When those on the streets see the evidence, that if I could change so can they, change is possible,” he said.

“I’ve come through this programme. I’m so proud that I’ve completed it. I was saddened to hear they’re closing. There is a huge need for them in this area. Without this service, people can fall back into old habits.”

Another graduate, Cameron Waverley, 48, joined U-Turn a year ago after sleeping on the streets in Town Centre.

“I abused alcohol and drugs. I rejoined U-Turn while still sleeping on the street. Even though I was harassed by SAPS, losing some clothes, possessions, I made a commitment to complete the programme in all four phases,” he said. “With no similar organisation, I pray it reopens to continue to help people like me.”

Mayoral committee member for community services and health Patricia van der Ross said the City had made R8.4 million available this year through grant-in-aid for projects helping street people, but it had been unable to meet the full funding requests of all 19 recipients including U-Turn.

U-Turn says it is willing to work with businesses or churches to find suitable premises in Mitchell’s Plain. Email Mr Bowman at raymond@homeless.org.za for more information.

Fabian Pillay, 38, of Westridge, is one of U-Turns 622 graduates so far this year. He was addicted to drugs for 17 years but became a staff member after he graduated a month ago.
Graduate Cameron Waverley, 48, joined U-Turn a year ago after sleeping on the streets in Town Centre.