Cape Town - 131119 - Bronwen Louw was homeless due to a traumatic experience in her life but with help from the city of Cape Town and various shelters, she now works various contracting jobs and stays in the Bo-Kaap. She currently works at the Trafalgar Swimming Pool in Woodstock. Reporter: Chelsea Geach Picture: David Ritchie

Cape Town - You never know where you’re going to end up, says Cape Town grandmother Bronwen Lowe, 58.

She is a part-time office assistant at a public swimming pool in Woodstock. Before that, she rode on dump trucks and swept streets and lived in a shelter. Before that, she was homeless.

But just three years ago, she lived in Table View and had a job in marketing and communications in the property industry.

Extreme stress and trauma led to a nervous breakdown. Lowe lost the ability to speak, and could no longer do her job.

“I lost absolutely everything. On the night I was made homeless, I remember seeing my cats running after me, and thinking that I’d never see them again.”

Lowe spent her first homeless night on Table View beach. She remembered looking at all the lit-up homes and just wanting to be in a place that was light and warm. While searching for a place to sleep, she fell into a ditch dug for a MyCiTi bus route. Her leg was put in a cast, and still hurts today.

Lowe spent two months on the streets and in psychiatric hospitals. “It was an absolute nightmare. It traumatises you so badly.”

Exhausted, she was desperate for a roof over her head, and a shower. Somebody directed her to the Haven Night Shelter in the city. “I rocked up there with one suitcase and was shown to a dorm with 26 ladies in bunk beds. Knowing I could have a shower and a bed, and dinner… I have never been so grateful.”

She quickly adapted to an environment she never thought she’d find herself in. “Survivor has nothing on a shelter. Yes, there are fights, but in a shelter the women have got your back. It’s funny, and sad, and it teaches you so much about your character.”

She taught the women marketing and communications skills, and gave “from ballet to Beyonce” dance classes. Lowe also developed a strong faith in God, and used to pray for donations of deodorant or toothpaste.

The only job available to shelter residents at the time was working on the dump trucks cleaning city streets, and Lowe snapped it up.

Despite being a grandmother with a gammy leg, she put on a bib and a hat and scaled the truck to sweep the streets between Sea Point and Bantry Bay. “I was determined. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had to do.”

Sweeping past people eating in expensive restaurants offered her a stark perspective on her new life. “I was looking at what used to be my lifestyle.”

Being a white street cleaner drew vastly different reactions from passers-by. Whites ignored her, blacks stared at her, and coloureds made remarks such as “are you on parole?”

After three months cleaning the streets, Lowe was offered a job in administration at the City of Cape Town, and has since been offered a succession of part-time contracts.

At the end of her year at the Haven, Lowe was given an award for being a woman of courage and strength. “It was better than winning an Oscar.”

Lowe then moved to a second-phase shelter in Simon’s Town where she did the men’s laundry to earn some money. Now she has a permanent home at St Monica’s Home for the elderly in the Bo-Kaap, and is on her fourth renewed contract doing office administration at the Trafalgar Park public pool in Woodstock.

Everything she wears was a donation, from sandals to sunglasses and make-up. “Even when I was sweeping the streets I wore my red lipstick. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you lose your dignity.

“I’m so grateful I’ve come on this journey. My children are so proud of what I’ve accomplished, and my grandchildren think I’m the coolest gran because I rode in dump trucks.”

Gratitude prompted Lowe to write to the Cape Argus, about the care she had had from the outpatient clinics at Somerset and False Bay hospitals, the finance provided for organisations such as the Haven shelters, and the mayor’s Extended Public Works Programme which gave her a job.

“I have never had cause to complain about being homeless in the city of Cape Town, which has served me so well, and I want to say a huge thank you to Premier Helen Zille and all who implement these initiatives to uplift people such as myself.”

Lowe is now writing a book about her experiences on the street.

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