Youth centre struggles to keep lights on

St Michael's Child and Youth Care Centre in Plumstead has opened a charity shop selling clothes blankets and jewellery.

A Plumstead home for vulnerable teenage girls is being threatened to have their electricity cut off by the City of Cape Town due to an arrears utility bill of R245 000.

The St Michael’s Child and Youth Care Centre in Hemyock Road is a registered non-profit organisation that is home to 25 girls, aged 13 to 18.

“The home takes in girls who may need head-space or shelter for two days and also girls who are orphaned or refugees, who have to stay on with us until they reach the age of 18,” said Bonita Hendricks, the centre’s director.

Ms Hendricks said during lockdown the home has been facing tremendous pressure from the City regarding their arrears utility bill which has accumulated over the years, but has gone up even more during lockdown as the girls at the home had to be home-schooled.

She said she has been to the Plumstead municipal offices multiple times during lockdown, but had not been assisted and has only received referrals and excuses every time. Some staff members were working from home, and the number of people allowed into the building had been minimised due to social distancing, so it had been very difficult for her to be assisted with her case in recent months.

She said their NPO was not the only one which was experiencing this issue, and having children at home during lockdown is increasing the water and electricity usage more for homes like theirs.

“Imagine this – I’m a 60-year-old person and I’m the proxy who has to stand in a queue that stretches out all the way down the Main Road. Why can’t they apply the billions that they have? We are trying to take care of children who are wards of state,” she said.

Ms Hendricks has been attempting to apply for a rebate from the City since last year to get their debt reduced, or to be able to pay it off over time. Their application still has not been processed.

“This organisation helps the City to assist these young and vulnerable women, and it would be a pity for them to have no water and electricity, especially during this time, when most of them are still continuing with home-schooling because they have comorbidities,” she said.

The girls in the home go to schools in Plumstead and many of them have special needs. With home-schooling, the girls also have to have internet access.

“These are 25 girls who go to different schools, are in different grades and learn in different languages. We’ve made photocopies by the hundreds during this lockdown. We also have to have the lights on during the day while they’re studying in the common areas because they need to be in a well-lit room. We also have to make three meals a day now because they’re not at school, and they have to be nutritious meals,” Ms Hendricks said.

She said that the lockdown regulations when it came to vulnerable children prohibited them from going back to school, because some of them had comorbidities.

“If one child gets sick, there’s the risk of all of them getting sick. And we have children who have HIV, TB, or have compromised immune systems because of drug abuse,” she said.

The home is funded by the provincial Department of Social Development, but Ms Hendricks said they do not receive enough for everything as the subsidy does not fund the staff’s fees. “We have had to find alternative ways to keep running,” said Ms Hendricks.

The home opened a charity shop in May last year to raise some of the money needed for the bill, however, the shop has had to remain closed for the past few months due to the Covid-19 pandemic (“Charity shop to help aid St Michael’s Youth Care Centre”, Constantiaberg Bulletin, May 9 2019).

“We are opening the shop in September and we would love for people to come to buy us out. We need all the support we can get. We are helpless but not hopeless,” said Ms Hendricks.

Ms Hendricks said last week the City had sent someone to disconnect their electricity and she had to run and fetch letters she had sent to councillors to prove that the application had been made but the City was taking too long to process it.

Ms Hendricks said the home had spent almost R9 000 installing electricity meters to manage their electricity since 2018 and bought gas stoves to try and manage their electricity usage.

“It’s very frustrating and very frightening to think that there’s a group of girls who may be in the dark any time. After work,I go home and I put my lights on but I’m always thinking about them. What if they switch it off,” she said.

On Wednesday, Ian Neilson, the City of Cape Town’s Mayco member for finance and deputy mayor, said the matter had been escalated to be resolved urgently.

“The change in the property rating category has been made. A write-off will be processed for the 2019/20 financial year. St Michael’s Child and Youth Care Centre had also received a 100% rates rebate for 2018/19.” he said.

Mr Neilson said the City would not at this time disconnect services to the St Michael’s Child and Youth Care and Centre and Ms Hendricks would be contacted as soon as possible to discuss the matter.

“Those who are in financial difficulties must approach us. The onus is on the applicant to approach the City. As a caring City, we also make allowance for residents who are unable to pay to apply to the City for relief. The City apologises for any inconvenience,” he said.