Street Children is a global urban phenomenon. These children can come from areas all over the country of the city involved and sometimes from beyond the borders. They are often “refugees” from their own communities having experiences that have pushed them to run away to the streets to “escape” or to find hope. Sometimes these experiences are very obvious to a child such as physical or sexual abuse but in some cases like that of low-intensity ongoing neglect, the child might not really perceive the real reasons that they are in the streets and have “drifted in” over time rather than run away.
(Pic: A street child in South Africa) The causes of children running to the streets are compounded by major socio-economoic scenarios and therefore not easy to solve quickly. The back drop to kids running to the streets is often poverty. However it is important to note that most poor children do not live in the streets so most times another “event” or series of “events” in theri lives have meant the difference between leaving home and not.
Although it is crucial to tackle the underlying social causes of the phenomenon, they are so macro that it is absolutely crucial to have a response to the fact that there are kids on the streets today. In other words, every city where there are street children needs a citywide strategy to address the situation.
Street life is often hard. It varies around the world but can include a whole range of suffering and abuse. Some children live permenantly or near permanently in the streets, others come to the streets for the day to work or beg. Some street children are working children too but in countries like South Africa most street children are not working children.
(Pic: Glue commonly inhaled by street children in South Africa) One thing that we can definitively say about street children is that all street children are, to varying degrees, traumatized. This comes from the experiences that they have had that have led them to the streets as well as their street experiences. In many countries children on the streets sniff glue or take other drugs to escape this reality and the fear of the streets. It can also take away the hunger pangs and enable them to pluck up the courage to endure such things as prostitution. Children are often exposed to hunger and disease and HIV/AIDS can be something that affects children in contributing to the reasons they come to the streets. They can also become infected in the streets due to the lifestyle. Street children often use drugs to overcome the pain and fear associated with their lives. They tend to use the cheapest drug available which is normally glue or other inhalants such as thinners or correction fluid. Inhaling these substances provides and escape from the realities and can also deaden the hunger pangs. Some street children, especially the younger, ones are continuously inhaling glue and live almost permanently high.
(Pic: Street children at a railway station in India) The children tend to live in groups on the streets. These are often makeshift families, but they often have to “contribute” to the group with what they can. It might be through begging, working and even sometimes prostitution and crime. These groups are often controlled by older boys or men but I have occasionally seen almost “mother” figures in older street girls controlling these groups. However, not every city is the same. there are different contexts. Some have more violence and often more addiction. Some have more working children an others more children engaged in the sex trade. Cities have their own characteristics. However, there are commonalities as well making the idea of model responses a reality. For example, in Durban, I dealt less with issues like “working children” violence, glue addiction and HIV/AIDS were every day realities. At the same time I have seen commonalities with street life in almost all of the other contexts that I have visited across the world.
(Pic: A street child eats food given by a kind passer by in Burundi) Due to the trauma any response to street children must have psychosocial support at its core. If you simply get kids off the streets without addressing the trauma, it tends to come back to haunt them. The psychosocial component of any street children organization is really its marker. Yet, in may areas it is very difficult to find, or for organisations to be able to afford qualified psychologists and social workers or even qualified carers.
Once children are submerged into a life spent high it can be very difficult to empower them to transition out of that. Despite the horrors of street life, it can be fast paced, especially whilst high, and children sometimes feel that they are “used to it”. One thing that became clear to me in Durban was that those kids we got of the streets had the chance to go on in their lives and those we didn’t, tended to have very short lives often dying from violence, disease and being hit by cars. It was literally life or death. So even if the child was “used” to the streets their future was bleak and if they didn’t die in the streets, they often ended up in jail.
(Pic: A drawing by street children in Africa) In many cities, authorities are embarrassed about the image of the city that street children give and try to hide them at moments where visitors come to the city, particularly around international conferences and events. This has began to be termed as “round-ups” or, the forced removal of street children. As this is usually done against the children’s will, it is often violent. Children can be chased, beaten, thrown into trucks and driven to various locations. In some countries they re dumped outside of the city and told not to come back. Other times they are jailed and sometimes internment centers are created to “house” these children to keep them out of sight. Rarely do authorities speak openly about the children being an eyesore but rather paint a picture of the children being a safety and security threat thus justifying the use of safety and security state apparatus to remove them. This results in police or security guards being deployed to remove these children instead of social workers, psychologists, street workers and child carers empowering them using social development principles. In some countries, particularly in South and Central America this has gone to another tragic level where death squads (sometimes plain clothes officers) have targeted street children. An important moment for the street children movement to remember is the Candalária Massacre which took place in the 23rd July 1993 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where a death squad, which included police, opened fire on a group of street children living outside the Candalária Catholic church and killed seven children and one young adult. Three military police officers were charged with the murders but only one found guilty.
(Pic: A group of street children sleeping under a warm air vent in the wall of a top Durban hotel) Making “round-ups” completely socially unacceptable in cities that host major sporting events or conferences is very important for street children (See campaigns page). It should be a pre-requisite that cities have to prove that they will not allow this type of activity to happen in the run-up to any such event. Ensuring that there are well documented and successful alternative models is also vital as opposing round-ups is not saying that children should sleep in the streets. It’s saying that we cannot accept this inhumane practice and advocate compassionate interventions that are in the best interest of the child and offer sustainable solutions. No child should have to sleep in the streets.
One thing that we found in Umthombo in Durban was that in order to attract kids to be able to make the break from this lifestyle we had to offer them something that was equally or more fast paced and exciting, whilst sober. We fused high-intensity engagement with psychosocial support. This was best seen with a very successful surfing prorgamme.