Beyond Spare Change: 3 Social Initiatives Helping the Homeless Help Themselves

Flickr/CC/Franco Folini

By Zarreen Kamalie

It goes without saying that homelessness is a worldwide issue, affecting millions everywhere. Typically, an individual’s state of homelessness is a result of inadequate housing, family violence, untreated mental illnesses, social and, or personal issues. As people, they deserve a stepping-stone to self-improvement that goes beyond whatever spare change we have in our pockets.

In Cape Town, South Africa, there are roughly 7,000 homeless people, with many citing inadequate housing as their reason for being homeless. While a great deal of responsibility lies on the city’s government, there have been a few social initiatives to address people who live on the streets and find themselves uncomfortable or unable to access a night shelter.

These initiatives go by the names, Street Sleeper, Straatwerk, and, U-Turn. They address homelessness with the aim of long-term solutions, restoration of dignity, and encouraging self-improvement on one’s own terms.

Street Sleeper

Street Sleeper is a social enterprise that designed survival sleeping bags to withstand the harsh conditions at night. These sleeping bags are made of upcycled PVC advertising billboards that were being thrown away.

The sleeping bag itself weighs around 4lbs and is 87 inches long, and 30 inches wide with ample space for sleeping with multiple layers and storing belongings. The sleeping bag also doubles as a backpack during the day, with 9 feet and 8 inches of strap webbing, and a pillowslip to be filled with clothes. To withstand the cold winters of Cape Town, the sleeping is waterproof, and the hood of the sleeping is designed to shield the head.

Not only are the homeless being provided immediate relief from the harsh conditions of sleeping on the street, Street Sleeper is geared towards generating a sense of motivation and opportunity that comes from feeling valued and included by society. The production process also creates employment, for homeless people as well as local businesses involved in the bag manufacturing, thereby empowering someone to improve their situation on their own.

The cost to gift a sleeping bag is only R150 (US$11.50), and can be done so by visiting this link:




Straatwerk (pronounced Straat-verk, meaning ‘Streetwork’) is a successful NGO in the city centre that works with a team of individuals that clean up areas in the city in exchange for money and empowerment services. The initiative is generally aimed at the homeless to reduce robberies, and dependency on begging, but other individuals are welcome to participate.

One of Cape Town’s main tourist attractions is the Company’s Garden. It is also a preferred sleeping place for a good number of the city’s homeless. Straatwerk provides a team of three cleaners three times per week, to clean up around the entrance areas of the Garden. On average they collect 15 bags of litter per four-hour shift, which translates into 1,058lbs of refuse every week.

The idea behind cleaning up the area is not to degrade them in any way but rather have them reclaim a space that they know they helped in maintaining. Straatwerk also provides assistance to its team members to obtain ID documents that allow them to participate in society by working, or voting, and later they receive a recommendation for regular employment.

Wikimedia Commons/CC/HelenOnline
Wikimedia Commons/CC/HelenOnline | Street cleaner takes a break to read the newspaper on Corporation Street, Cape Town, South Africa



U-turn is a charity organisation whose initiative is focused on long-term solutions, moving away from once-off handouts and more toward sustained communication and improvement.  And it all starts with a meal voucher.

The meal voucher initiative currently operates in the Western Cape in the Claremont, Rondebosch, Kenilworth and Wynberg areas. The meal vouchers are meant to be an alternative to handing out spare change, and instead put homeless people in contact with the organisation for food, clothing, and long-term assistance.

There are 5 steps involved:

1)    First buy a pack of vouchers for R30 (US$2.30), where 1 pack contains 5 meal vouchers

2)    Then the next time someone approaches you asking for money, give a voucher to them instead

3)    On the voucher is a map and details about U-Turn. The homeless person redeems the voucher for food or clothing at one of U-Turn’s service points

4)         In addition to getting a meal, the individual becomes acquainted with U turn staff and they inform them of rehab opportunities

5)         Now the individual faces a number of opportunities that will help get them off the street, and it can all be done on their own

For more information and to buy a pack of meal vouchers by visiting this website, visit: .

If we could all contribute and engage with these initiatives, we would surely see a drop in homelessness and a rise in strong, motivated individuals who just needed a little pulling up.

Wikimedia Commons/CC/HelenOnline
Wikimedia Commons/CC/HelenOnline | Homeless person collecting recyclables in Stellenbosch, South Africa