Lee’s story of hope

Lee Stemmet spraying the vegetables in the Streetscape garden in the city centre.

For the first time in over a decade, Lee Stemmet spent his birthday with his family – and with a roof over his head.

Lee, who works at the Streetscape garden near Fruit & Veg City in Roeland Street, was taken home and reunited with his paternal family in Portland, Mitchell’s Plain, after they had spent years searching for him.

Just two weeks ago, his family found him through social media and took him back to their family home. Lee had been living on the streets of the city centre for all this time.

“We are so happy he is back with us. Some days I can see he misses where he was, but we try not to talk about it and try to encourage him. It’s a process, but he is getting there, said Lee’s aunt, Megan Petersen.

She told the CapeTowner Lee had left his home in Beaufort West when he was 14 years old.

“Lee lived with his mother in Beaufort West, but would come to us in Portland from a young age during school holidays and over weekends.

“When he ran away from home, we assumed he was fine because he was up and down between Beaufort West and Cape Town.”

Lee’s mother died a few years later, and Ms Petersen decided to check on her nephew, but she could not reach him.

“I put up pictures of him on social media, I asked around for years.”

She said the family even reported him missing at Mitchell’s Plain SAPS at the time, but the investigation took a long time. Meanwhile, a 14-year-old Lee had taken public transport to Cape Town, where he would live on the streets for years to come. He said when he first got to the city centre, he slept in the Company’s Garden.

“It was hard on the streets. I scratched in bins to survive, and found some friends who were also on a ‘skarrel’. It was safer in groups. When it rained, we got wet. City Law Enforcement took our belongings all the time.”

He said even though being on the streets gave him the freedom to do his own thing, life was dangerous.

“I was abused and assaulted many times while being homeless. I was even stabbed in the arm a few months ago while I was sleeping in Hope Street. I did tik for a while to stay awake at night, but I stopped – I wasn’t on it for long.”

Lee said he joined the Khulisa programme and before the Streetscape gardens started, there were various meetings. They helped him get his identity document, and helped him get a contracted job with the City of Cape Town’s EPWP **IN FULL** programme. After the contract expired, they started the first Streetscape garden at Fruit & Veg City near Harold Cressy High School.

“When we came here it was just gravel, and many homeless people were sleeping here. We built this garden from the ground up.

“For me, gardening is like raising children. From when you put that seed into the ground, you care for it like you would care for a baby. It’s growing into such a beautiful place – and we did it.”

Lee now works at the garden every day under the watchful eye of his supervisor, Magadien Wentzel. Mr Wentzel said when he first started working at the garden and met Lee two years ago, he had been very hard-headed. “He didn’t want to be told what to do and where to go, but we know this is a process and it takes a lot of patience.

“After interventions with myself and Jesse (the director of Khulisa Solutions), we began to see an improvement.” He said the thing that struck him about Lee was that he did not want to live on the street, but he didn’t know how to get out of his situation.

“I spoke to Lee daily, and encouraged and taught him about choices and what he can achieve if he makes the right ones. The next step is to get Lee an education because he needs to learn to read and write.

“I’m happy he found his family and that he is where he belongs, and that he stays on the right path because he can achieve a lot and if he is honest with himself he will go far.”

**KHULISA SOLUTIONS DIRECTOR??** Jesse Laitinen said Lee was part of the first group they took in three years ago.

“When I first met him he was so skinny. He is tough as nails, but somehow he managed to stay innocent. His essence was always the same. He is charming and caring, it’s hard to think someone like him survived on the street.”

She said Lee wasn’t a naughty teenager who was rebellious, but a child who had no home, so he didn’t really have a choice.

“It’s good to see him back home where he belongs.” She said Lee was one of at least six people from the first group who had returned home. “If they don’t want to return home, we look for a halfway house or accommodation close to where they live, and we raise funds to buy wendy houses so that they can be on their own. Homeless people very seldom want to go to a shelter.

“The foundation of the project is that we are all the same. But the things we as people who are integrated take for granted, are things that homeless people need to re-learn.”

She said there had been many developments with the Streetscape project.

“We’ve built a relationship with the Oranjezicht City farms. We’ve got many clients and we are marketing to residents and teachers at Trafalgar High School where we have our other garden, which is established and open for business.”

She said they will start the next garden later this month in Constitution Street. “We will start a crowdfunding campaign later this month to support the new garden. We are looking to raise R100 000 — R50 000 for the fence and the rest will go to seedlings, compost, a stipend for labour, and planting will happen in September.”

She said she would like to thank the Ackerman – Pick * Pay Foundation who sponsored the project, and the City Central Improvement District for all their support “since day one”.

Lee said when he returned home, everyone wanted to see him because he had been away for such a long time. “I want to thank Khulisa for everything they have done for me. To the people of Cape Town – a homeless person is also a person, they just don’t have a home. If we had homes, we would be just like you. Our circumstances were difficult, probably more difficult than yours. When we greet, greet back – its an added blessing.

“To some of the people who care about the homeless, thank you for keeping us in your thoughts and for giving us when we are hungry or cold.”

Ms Petersen said Lee was doing well at home.

“The other day I took out photo albums and showed him pictures of when he was little. We are glad to have him back home. My mother takes him to the bus stop every morning when he goes to work, and he comes home. We have high hopes for him.

“He is a funny, well-mannered person and very friendly. He is always ready for a joke, making us laugh and smile. We missed him.”