Ophelp – Be inspired

In a nutshell

A public-private partnership in which property owners in the central city pay a levy on their property rates to fund cleaning, security and social development initiatives over and above those provided by the municipality.

What we do

City improvement districts are part of a revitalisation model that aims to make central city areas safer, cleaner and more attractive for investment. Beyond tackling “crime and grime”, these organisations also need to focus on social issues prevalent in central business districts, chief among which is homelessness.

In Cape Town, the CCID has teamed up with a range of NGOs assisting street people, including the faith-based NGO Straatwerk. Through the programme, jobs are created for those on the fringes of society, people who would otherwise be unable to find work, according to Tasso Evangelinos, chief operating officer of the CCID. The programme offers poor and vulnerable people an alternative to theft and aggressive begging on the city’s streets.

Straatwerk’s Ophelp began in 2004 to assist the homeless and destitute. It responds directly to unemployment, which is a major contributing factor to crime and violence, and aims to make the central city safer for everyone. 

The programme aims to change the common perception that homeless people are a threat to the personal safety and property investments of others.

Straatwerk will assist anyone who seeks help by providing short-term employment – usually a shift that pays him or her R50. Each shift is four hours long and involves some form of manual labour in and around the central city. At the end of each day participants are paid in cash. Demand for this work is high and there are not enough shifts for everyone every day, so the participants alternate shifts according to a roster to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to work and earn.

How we do it

There are three phases. In the initial phase the homeless person is generally assigned tasks that involve cleaning. This can range from sweeping the streets to picking up litter and disposing of waste. 

In the second phase the work demands more skills and the hourly rate increases. These jobs include distributing newspapers, making minor repairs to city infrastructure, maintenance and removing graffiti. 

The third and final stage focuses on more specialised work, such as minor road maintenance and pothole repairs and tree trimming. This requires some form training, which the programme provides, and a higher level of skills. 

More complex work is done by regular municipal staff.

There are two ways in which one can enter the programme. For homeless people, admission is instant and they can start working on the day they arrive. Those who have a place to stay and some level of skill are required to bring along someone who can sponsor their first shift of R50 and who vouches for the fact that they really need the opportunity. Thereafter they will be placed on the roster to be allocated shifts. 

All participants can move up the levels, depending on their performance.

The presence of more responsible people in the programme has been very helpful, according to Hannes van der Merwe from Straatwerk. These individuals can serve as role models to motivate members at the lower end of the programme to better their circumstances. 

Straatwerk also includes people with disabilities and foreign nationals struggling to find work. The programme for physically and mentally disabled people is called Jesus Saves Daily and has shorter shifts of just two hours. 


The CCID is funded through a top-up levy on property rates imposed on property owners within a defined boundary. The municipality collects the extra tax and pays it over to the CCID, which spends the funds according to an approved annual business plan.

Straatwerk is supported by the CCID, several private businesses and a group of individuals who make regular contributions. 

The project is one that can easily be replicated in both business and residential areas where the improvement district model is implemented and helps ensure safer streets for both the homeless and others members of the community.

What we have achieved

The programme has changed the lives of many people. There is a “graduation list” of all its top achievers, those participants who are recommended to prospective employers for long-term employment. Van der Merwe confirms that many have gone on to receive meaningful employment once they have left the project.

One of the most beneficial outcomes is not only a permanent job, but a renewed sense of hope. The greatest achievement is seeing people realising their full potential and restoring their human dignity and pride.

As one of a range of measures to tackle social problems, the programme has helped contribute to a steady decline in petty crime (which has decreased by more than 90% since 2000) in a thriving Cape Town city centre, which has attracted billions of rand in investment since 2004.

What we have learned

One the biggest hurdles to overcome is the defeatist attitude of some of the participants, many of whom have given up hope. According to Van der Merwe there is a notion that they are not good people. Many have accepted homelessness and alcoholism as part of their lives. Revising this mindset is a major challenge.

Discipline is also a problem at times. The most common problems are theft, assault and threatening harm to other people. Failure to adhere to rules or committing these offences usually results in a loss of shifts and the participant’s being put at the back of the queue for future work.

At Straatwerk, expulsion is not an option because participants believe they have been expelled from life already. Instead, the courts become involved where serious harm is done. After they have served their legal punishment, Straatwerk will still be their home, according to Van der Merwe.

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