Village garden helps the homeless

Sue Diepeveen of Somerset West, a first time shopper at the Somerset West Village Garden, choosing her fresh vegetables, assisted by Di Irish.

When Somerset West resident, Jenny Finley, watched a documentary programme about food gardens in Cuba which helped to get homeless people off the streets, she was inspired to blueprint the concept in Somerset West.

“I’ve always been a member of the neighbourhood watch, and I’d see street people scratching in bins. I thought at the time there’s got to be something better for these people and I realised I had to do something,” said Jenny.

She identified the piece of vacant land on the corner of Drama and New streets as a suitable location for the food garden, but unsure how to proceed, she spoke to Cheryl Ozinsky, who runs the city farm at Oranjezicht in Cape Town. “I knew that she had approached the City of Cape Town and I wanted to ask her how she had gone about it and then to follow that blueprint to get going.

“We spoke to councillor Stuart Pringle, and he suggested we speak to the head of the city parks department, and we eventually signed a memorandum of agreement in June 2015, which granted us the use of the land and free water for five years.”

Two years ago, almost to the day – she broke ground on the untidy, disused lot granted by the City of Cape Town on October 31 2015 – and Jenny’s dream was realised. “October 31 this year is on a Tuesday, so we’ll celebrate on the preceding Friday,” Jenny said with a smile.

But the project was substantial and it needed funding. “When we actually broke ground we put out photographs and said what we wanted to do here and fortunately, Des McLeod of Erinvale ECHO stepped in and offered to help,” said Jenny.

“The first thing we needed to do was to fence the entire property, which ECHO did.” In short order, other people donated seeds and seedlings, and the barren piece of ground was converted into a verdant garden growing a wide variety of seasonal vegetables.

“We are open Monday to Friday from 9 o’clock until 2 o’clock and it is during this time that street people are able to work in the garden for up to four hours each day in return for four tokens donated by the Helderberg Street People’s Centre (HSPC). It is thanks to Andy Loughton of the HSPC that we were able to introduce this programme,” Jenny said.

“They can exchange a token for a plate of food and they can also save up to 20 tokens, which can be used for example, for getting a new ID, which the HSPC helps them do, because they cannot get a job without an ID.”

In return, the food garden supplies the HSPC with vegetables every week. “Today, I will deliver a couple of crates of vegetables to the HSPC, which they will prepare and put in the deep-freeze to use during the week. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“We also supply vegetables to the Somerset West Night Shelter, which they do once a month at their open day. In reciprocation, people who work here, once they have met all the requirements of the night shelter, can sleep there in return for two tokens,” Jenny said.

“We want this to be the entrance into getting onto the next level, where they can actually go out and find a job, open a bank account and eventually get integrated back into society,” said Jenny. “We also want to help them retain their dignity, so we’ve introduced a programme whereby they can use tokens to buy clothing, such as jeans, a new shirt or a new jacket.”

Although Jenny has put much effort into publicising to homeless people the benefits of participating in the programme, the response has been disappointing. “We’ve had a number of people go on to get jobs but six months later they are back, so it is a long process. I thought they could work here for six months, we could train them up and they could find a job and stay off the streets, but it’s not that simple,” said Jenny.

“I think the reason for us not attracting more homeless people is because they’re inclined to want money, but many of them are substance users so we don’t want to give the money, which is why we give them tokens instead. For doing some work, they’ll get something in return and they will have a full tummy tonight at the very least.”

But the news on the job front is not all negative. “An employer approached the HSPC asking for 20 people to do manual labour for two months. These people had to be registered with SARS, have a bank account, have a police clearance and have a health check, which the social worker helps them get done,” Jenny said, “and six people from here have gone on to that programme and on to the next level. The challenge, is finding more of this kind of programme, but the economy is bad and there is not much work.

“The city improvement district approached the night shelter for people to clean the streets so some of our people get to work there on the Thursday and Friday in return for money, but they are checked out by a social worker to ensure that they have reached a stage where they can manage money and they’re not going to revert to using substances. It’s quite a learning curve, it’s a new model and we’re learning as we go along.”

Bolander visited the food garden last Tuesday, which is market day when the fresh vegetables are sold to the public between 9am and 11am. “We have about 12 people working here today and they will stay at 3 o’clock this afternoon, a longer day because this is the day on which we harvest our vegetables.”

A major constraint at the moment, is the availability of water for the garden.

“It’s a great worry to us,” said Jenny. “We have two 5 000-litre water tanks and will get another three 3 500-litre tanks, which will give us just over 20 000 litres of water, but that only lasts us about two weeks,” Jenny said. “We have spoken to some of the farmers in the area who are happy to give us some water out of their dams. We desperately need somebody with a tanker truck of sorts who can help get the water to us. We have also applied to the City of Cape Town for permission to put down a borehole on their property and we have approached the Department of Agriculture for funding.”

Somerset West resident, Martin Gevers, was doing his weekly vegetable shopping and had this to say about the initiative: “I’d like to have a garden of my own but it’s not possible living in a flat, so I shop here every Tuesday. I’m in awe of this garden and the courage and foresight of the people who do this work. I find it absolutely amazing. I hope it just grows and grows and that the City will continue to support it after the first five year period is up. I’m totally behind Jenny and her team and I’m doing what I can in my own little way to support them.”

Sue Diepeveen, also of Somerset West, was a first time shopper.

“This is my first time and I am so excited. I think this is probably one of the world’s best ideas ever. Just imagine, a vegetable garden in the middle of the village which helps people to help themselves. How much better can it get? And it’s organic. Every village should have a place like this and we would have far fewer homeless people.”

Anybody who would like to help Jenny and her team, particularly with the trucking of water from local farms, can contact her on or 082 901 2636, or Di Irish on 082 376 0377.