2020 – what a year!

As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt, disruption to services, rising unemployment, increased crime and increases in the number of people living on the streets have been noted throughout Cape Town.  The suburb of Observatory is no exception, but the Observatory Improvement District (OBSID) is making significant inroads in dealing with these inner city challenges. Amanda Kirk, CEO of OBSID, explains how they are thriving in the “new normal”, significantly improving the cleanliness and safety of the suburb and helping those living on the streets in the process.

OBSID continued to tackle issues head-on in Observatory, even during lockdown.  “Public safety, keeping Obs clean, and helping those living on the streets in our suburb in a responsible way, are always our first priorities,” said OBSID CEO, Amanda Kirk.

“We were designated an essential service during lockdown and maintained service levels throughout all of the Covid lockdown levels in all core programmes, with expansion in critical aspects of our work, most notably in public safety.  Our social development programme also expanded its work to help equip those living on the streets to cope with the situation. We supported those living on the streets with hygiene kits, the installation of handwashing stations (with the help of AfrikaBurn Outreach), meal services, and helping many get off the streets and into shelters or back to family and friends.”

Kirk says that under the “new normal”, OBSID staff are on the streets every day and remain aware of all the risks associated with work in public spaces. “We protect our staff and the community with strict hygiene protocols and PPE, both in the office and out on the streets, and thankfully none of our staff have fallen ill to date.”

Public safety

“Safety, particularly safety in public spaces, is an essential ingredient for the creation of liveable and prosperous cities – urban spaces and facilities need to be designed and managed in a way that makes citizens feel safe from violence and crime,” says Kirk.

“We have significantly expanded our public safety service in Observatory through the introduction of additional patrols and vehicles with the help of our safety contractor, Securitas, and we are piloting the Buzzer Community Safety app, in the hope that this will give the community the right platform to raise safety concerns in real time.

OBSID introduced licence plate recognition (LPR) technology in 2019 and have integrated this into the public safety response.  “Quick action by the OBSID controllers has assisted in a number of arrests as a result of LPR alerts,” says Kirk.

“Most of the incidents in the OBSID precinct are opportunistic crimes; the OBSID public safety team also focuses on helping the community prevent crime – for example informing owners or residents of unlocked vehicles, open doors, and open garages or premises’ gates.  On average, we record between 80 and 90 proactive incidents a month – each potentially averting a crime.”

“We are pleased to note that while increases in crime incidents seem to be the norm in other areas and people perceive the crime rate to be high, Observatory has actually noted a decrease in the number of reported incidents over recent months,” says Kirk.

“We encourage people to report incidents so we can operate off the best information, and optimise our public safety services.”

“The high unemployment levels and hunger resulting from the lockdown, can potentially result in an increase in petty crime in many areas. We have been able to keep our public safety service fully operational and  we have brought on additional foot patrols to combat any surge in crime,” said Kirk.

Cleaning and greening Obs

OBSID collects an average of between 900 and 1100 bags of dumped refuse and litter each and every week – over and above what the city removes through its refuse collection service.

“Our team works staggered shifts, seven days a week, tackling hotspots, collecting dumping, completing dumpsite runs and picking up litter.  We also do weeding, deep cleaning and drain cleaning,” says Kirk.

“Our team is doing an excellent job, but in some instances, people take advantage of our efficiency– they know we will pick up refuse, so they dump their household or business waste on the street.  We need to work together as a community  to stop this selfish behaviour.”

“OBSID works closely with a range of organisations to improve the public spaces in the suburb – Khulisa Streetscapes for street cleaning, Straatwerk OPHELP on graffiti removal and Green4Life Gardeners to improve the green spaces of Observatory. Importantly, the partnerships with Streetscapes and Straatwerk offer work diversion and harm reduction opportunities to people living on the streets in Observatory.”

Reducing harm

OBSID partnered with Khulisa Streetscapes on the provision of social development services in early 2019. The launch of the “Streetscapes in Observatory” work rehabilitation programme and accompanying services has shown considerable impact, providing sheltered work opportunities for people living on the streets, coupled with outreach, case management and access to a range of support services.

“Our partnership with Khulisa Streetscapes has allowed us to implement a developmental approach that includes sheltered work opportunities and agreed harm reduction strategies to support the individual’s journey towards different life choices,” explains Kirk.

OBSID has partnered with Afrikaburn Outreach to install toilets in the public spaces to tackle the issue of human waste as City bathrooms aren’t always open. The units, serviced by Sanitech, and maintained by the OBSID cleaning team, have led to a significant reduction in human waste in the centre of Observatory. “Public amenities are essential to restore dignity to those living on the streets,” says Kirk.

Drug use and chronic illnesses are prevalent amongst those living on the streets and OBSID has stepped in to assist on several levels, assisting people to access medical and other clinical services and to get onto chronic medication programmes.  In addition, OBSID partnered with TB / HIV Care at the beginning of 2020 on their PWID (People Who Inject Drugs programme).  “OBSID provides safe needle disposal facilities, as well as issuing harm reduction packs which has led to a reduction in the number of used needles in the public spaces and allowed individuals living on the streets to gain access to OBSID’s social development services”, says Kirk.

“Housing first” – a first for Observatory

As part of OBSID’s efforts to address homelessness in Observatory and as an expansion of the partnership with Khulisa Streetscapes, OBSID is currently participating in a pilot supportive housing project. “A private property in Observatory was secured and set up for a pilot supportive housing project, and accommodation is being be offered to up  to 20 people sharing rooms, all of whom must be participants in Streetscapes’ sheltered work programmes,” says Kirk.

OBSID’s future plans – making places for people

“We want to encourage programmes and projects that support and uplift those living on the streets in a sustainable, responsible manner, and our partnership with Khulisa Streetscapes is key to understanding how we can best achieve this,” says Kirk.

“We’re aiming to develop our public spaces creatively, to become an expression of the community’s collective life, and the rich cultural diversity that defines Obs.”

‘We recently did a public spaces survey to enable the community to give us feedback about what they want to happen in our public open spaces and are currently considering a range of projects.  We would love to see inclusive, free events, art and shared experiences on our streets and in our parks and facilities.”

“Besides enhancing the suburb, we want to the projects we endorse to stimulate economic recovery by supporting local businesses,” says Kirk.

“We are figuring out how we can support businesses now – through communication strategies encouraging people to look locally for their shopping / dining / lifestyle services, support to the development of online trading functionality for businesses who don’t have it and safe event activation when regulations allow for it.”

Kirk reiterates that OBSID’s success is due to hard work and dedication to improving the area. “Our achievements to date been the result of the incredible commitment of the OBSID team to their work, their willingness to go the extra mile and their determination not to let the community down.”


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