Cape Town - Once, it was just an open plot of land used as an ad hoc dumping space alongside the fruit and vegetable market in Roeland Street, overrun by rats, a haven for drug dealers to hide their goods, and reeking of human waste and rotting foodstuffs.
Just a few years later, the area has been transformed into a thriving urban fresh produce garden, complete with a greenhouse for seedlings, two composting stations, rainwater harvesting tanks and an office to sell to the public.
It's all thanks to Streetscapes, an off-shoot of Khulisa Social Solutions, which employs homeless people to man the gardens, sow and care for the seedlings and plants, harvest them and sell them to the public and other outlets.
It helps give the homeless a sense of purpose.
The Streetscapes gardens in Roeland Street and at Trafalgar High School on the slopes of Devil's Peak are among these success stories, and this year the organisation hopes to go one better.
It aims to establish a third urban garden and plans to do so entirely via crowdfunding.
"We have had so much positive feedback from residents, community organisations and businesses that time felt right to do the third garden together," Khulisa strategic partnerships manager Jesse Laitinen said. "There is something symbolically so powerful if we do this together. It means its not just us who share this vision and are passionate. It becomes a movement. A movement of caring people who think out the box. I love the idea of living in a city like that. So much more inspiring. So its not just about the money, it is about joining hands and having a sense of belonging with the broader community. I get goosebumps just thinking about it!"
More than 100 people have benefited from the urban garden project so far, with many formerly homeless people now gainfully employed. A third garden would be able to fully employ another five to ten more people immediately.
Laitinen said they had already identified a site for the third urban garden.
"We have been lucky to have been offered a few (sites). The city, Trafalgar High School and residents in the same area have approached us with different options. We are working with all the parties to find the most suitable one. Constitution Street seems right now like the best one."
Streetscapes is using crowdfunding as a way to raise funds for the new garden.
"It is a unique model as it is established especially to create a direct way for residents to give responsibly, and where even R5 matters. Most garden purchases are under R30! And when there are many they cover salary costs for our workers.
"The operational costs are never covered from donations or sales from the gardens. The operational costs are funded by wonderful funders who have stuck with us since beginning, Central City Improvement District and Ackerman Pick n Pay Foundation. We are very grateful.
"All the donations to the campaign go to cover infrastructure needs and labor cost for the homeless. Thundafund takes a small cut for their costs. So it is a safe direct way to give and we are proud of it," Laitinen said.
There are also other ways the public can get involved.
"They can shop at the gardens six days a week, or volunteer their time in the gardens, skills based donation of their time - we always need different professional services, donate funds towards campaigns, adopt a person they want to help in terms of covering part or all of their stipend, bring old clothes etc etc. There are really so many ways!"
The gardens are open to the public on Monday to Friday from 8am to 11am, and again from 1pm to 4pm and on weekends from 8am to 2pm.
"Our regular clients are Doppio Zero, House of H, Fasal Cafe, Oranjezicht City Farm Market but we have also had many others that buy occasionally. The orders range between R150 and R800 every time. But we also get paid monthly for the cleaning street service and keeping a city toilet clean and safe. Every penny goes to stipends to homeless people! We aren’t yet able to cover all the stipends with sales money as we keep taking more people in who need the opportunity. So the organisation still subsidises the payments each month from donations we get from residents and businesses."
And they're not stopping there.
"The goal is to create 500 permanent rehabilitative jobs for the chronic homeless in the city centre. This will be done through gardens - there will probably be 10 of these green productive pockets in the city in the next five years - and 10 other social enterprises - seedlings, a bakery, lunch sandwiches and salad, compost, street cleaning, public toilet maintenance, etc. - that provide work. The model is the same.
"We complement work with counsellors, one-on-one support and group psycho-educational sessions. And assistance with every day life situations like getting Wendy houses, city housing, health care, nutrition, healthy leisure activities, etc. This is only possible if residents and businesses support the work we do, feel that it is what they want to see happening.
"And so far we’ve only met with positive feedback. Nobody has told us to stop doing what we are doing. Those that feared that this will only bring more beggars to town have realised that this is part of the solution, not the problem," Laitinen said.
* Dignity in Action is the second editorial project under the Cape Argus Dignity Project