Forty years of giving the homeless hope

Sharnelle Cader, who managed the Hope Exchange’s #feed5000 campaign, with director Peter Solomon at the organisation’s car wash.

The Hope Exchange in Roeland Street turns 40 this year, and, instead of planning celebrations, the team is focused on the needs of its clients, and feeding the vulnerable during one of the toughest times in human history.

The team has just wrapped up their Feed5000 initiative – an annual programme which sees the organisation feed the homeless people of the city when the CBD goes on a hiatus at the end of each year.

With level 3 lockdown implemented and South Africa’s second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Feed5000 ran a few days longer – from December 12 until January 17 – to support The Service Dining Rooms while they closed for their annual break.

Although it has been a challenging period, they managed to serve a total of 11 516 meals over this period, surpassing the 10 463 meals served last year.

The Hope Exchange, previously the Carpenter Shop, is a non-profit organisation with the goal of reintegrating homeless people into society by providing them with services including daily ablutions, toilet and laundry facilities, nutritious meals, social work services and life-skills training – individually and with partners in the community.

Director at the Hope Exchange, Peter Solomon said despite the lockdown, the need for food and services for homeless people were still there. He said fund-raising had become a challenge, and less people had volunteered amid fears of contracting Covid-19.

Mr Solomon said they’ve seen a significant increase in homelessness, because of the lockdown, as a lot of new clients have presented at the organisation.

The Carpenter Shop opened 40 years ago in Roeland Street, with the idea to give homeless people a skill in woodwork, so they could be able to get a job in carpentry.

One of the founders and retired board member, Geoff Burton, told the CapeTowner that he was part of a group of businessmen who opened a restaurant in Lower Burg Street, called Matthews, which catered for breakfast, lunch tea and afternoon lunch, and served the community of the area.

He said they realised soon after starting up that a large percentage of the patrons were people from the street, and while they were welcomed, they gathered in groups and it was a little disturbing for the other patrons.

“We realised we needed to find a place where they can receive some attention separately – we decided it would be carpentry training. We had a partner that told us that there was a place in Roeland Street that’s an industry school and the space was vacant.”

In the 1840s, the school of industry was built by funding from Lady Catherine Bell, the sister of South Africa’s first surveyor-general Sir Charles Bell to help the young men of District Six with skills training.

After District Six was declared a white area under Apartheid’s Group Areas Act, and was torn down in the 1960s, there were no pupils to attend the school, and it closed its doors in 1975.

“The building fell into decay. The roof was leaking and was used by a man for several years to store dolls. I still remember him – Abraham…”, said Mr Burton.

He said they found some start-up money and repaired the building and turned it into a carpenter skills training centre with the help of funding.

“It grew until we had a full carpentry workshop and training school for homeless people, but we soon realised that these people had to go back to the streets and they were not really being rehabilitated. We decided to build a residence, so we saved money for 15 years and fund-raised and we built the 40-bedroom residence with a common room.”

The residence today still acts as a second-phase shelter for 40 men who are on the road to integration. The residents work daily and pay an accommodation fee to stay at the shelter for a maximum of six months. However, according to Mr Solomon, most of the residents have lost their jobs during the lockdown, and could not vacate the premises due to this.

Mr Burton said over the years, the team always had to be ready for change, because homelessness and its needs always changed.

They closed the carpentry school six years ago, as they needed to find a more holistic approach to homelessness and reintegration.

“I asked myself what is the outcome, and it had to be positive even though you had to be patient, and if it wasn’t positive, just stop. The running costs were too much and people were being trained for free, so, after 34 years, we moved away from carpentry.”

He said two years ago, they rebranded to the Hope Exchange, because they were not a shop. “We are an exchange – but the people have to have some hope to stabilise their lives, and we have hope that they will improve.

Paul Asante of Ladles of Love, in the kitchen on the Hope Exchange’s property.

Danny Dilberto from Ladles of Love, one of the Hope Exchange’s main partners, said the relationship with the organisations started about five years ago when they supported a feeding programme, which was soon taken over by Ladles of Love.

Mr Dilberto said they now rent a space as Ladles of Love’s main kitchen at the Roeland Street premises and also help with feeding programmes.

“What an achievement for an NPO to have reached their 40th birthday. I wish abundant blessings on them and another 40 years of proactive, positive and loving service to the homeless community.”

Pat Eddy from the Central City Improvement District’s (CCID’s) social development department, which is also a partner of the Hope Exchange, said when she joined the CCID in 2008, the field workers were already referring homeless clients to The Hope Exchange, for basic ablution facilities.

She said over time, the CCID’s relationship with the organisation strengthened and they explored ways they could support the Hope Exchange.

She said the CCID made a financial contribution to the Hope Exchange’s ablution facility upgrading in 2015; provided some tools for a weekly clinic to be held at the premises, and they also regularly donate to the cause.

“We would like to congratulate The Hope Exchange and applaud the work they have done, and continue to do, to support the homeless population of the Cape Town central city.

“We hope that they will be able to use the opportunities presented by Covid-19 to continue to do their work and to collaborate with various partners so that we can all find more sustainable solutions for dealing with the current homeless position.”

Mr Solomon said while the Hope Exchange tries to cater for the needs of the ever increasing homeless community, they are struggling amid the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Donors are hard-pressed and fatigued. We received a small grant from the City of Cape Town and sometimes receive donations from individuals, but Covid-19 has had a negative impact on our revenue.“

He said the car wash, started seven years ago to help the homeless with jobs and to generate a small income, took a huge knock with people working from home during the lockdown.

People can support the organisation by financially contributing; donating to the second-hand store or supporting the car wash.

Visit thehopeexchange.org/2020-feed5000/ for more information.