Life's tough on the street

Exposed to high levels of violence and substance abuse, the influx of homeless street children remain a great concern.

14 February 2017 | Local News

Efforts to help a group of street children from Gobabis continue to backfire because handouts from sympathetic members of the public keep them motivated to stay on the streets.

In an interview with Namibian Sun recently, social workers from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare explained that while the ministry has made numerous attempts to provide shelter or to return them home, handouts, especially money, is a strong incentive to stay on the street.

The Gobabis group have become a well-known sight, and for many, a nuisance, to motorists and pedestrians alike in the high-income eastern suburbs of Windhoek.

“If they get money or food they will stay on the street. Even though we have a shelter specifically designed for them, it stands there empty because they would rather be on the street to make money than come here,” Amelia Musukubili, the control social worker at the directorate of child welfare said.

Her plea to the public is to stop giving money and food.

“They are not helping the situation, they make our work very challenging and difficult because whatever we try, they just run away and go back to the streets.”

Unique

The after-school shelter provides daily education and play activities, food, beds, baths and other basic necessities, which most of the street children from Gobabis, apart from a handful of success stories, have resisted.

“The after-school centre is like a house setting. There are three meals a day and still the children run. It shows you it’s not so much about the food. It’s about other incentives, it’s about the money,” Magdalena Katimba, the chief superintendent of the ministry’s after-school centre, explained.

Moreover, many of the group of Gobabis kids, described as a “unique” subset of street children by case workers, are over the age of 15, with very little exposure to formal education.

This makes the task of reintegrating them into schools a major challenge.

“Some dropped out of school at a very young age and they have now outgrown the primary and secondary school systems and we have to find an alternative option for them. Even vocational schools have certain minimum requirements to admit the children,” Musukubili said.

Many lack basic documents, including birth certificates, which complicates the task further.

The issue of how to help them once they are off the street is one of the core focus areas on the child welfare’s directorate’s agenda.

Help us help them

The ministry hopes to identify willing stakeholders who could help fund, and or, design vocational programmes targeted specifically at young people with little or no school background.

But another issue is whether the children want to be helped.

“Many of the elderly children do not want to stay at the shelter. Their behaviour when we bring them there is such that they cause havoc. They steal and they jump the fence. They prefer to be on the streets. And when they are making up to N$200 a day from begging or other activities, when they are used to get money in their hands that they can spend as they see fit, that’s not surprising,” Katimba said.

A preliminary study by the University of Namibia and regular contact with the children has also identified a strong streak of independence and close personal bonds between the street children.

The relationship forged on the streets become superior to any secondary relationships with families at home or with authority figures trying to help.

Preference

“The older children hike back and forth between Gobabis and Windhoek. It’s a preference for them. When they run out of money or get bored and then they return to Windhoek,” Katimba said.

The problem, according to social workers, who have worked closely with the children, is that they often attract younger children to join them in the capital.

These kids are first in line for intervention measures by ministry workers, as it is critical to help the children as early as possible.

“Early intervention is important. If we catch them early it can help, instead of finding them very late in their life and by then the problem is chronic,” Musukubili said.

The social workers said that there is no doubt the majority of children on the street are driven by poverty or food insecurity at home. But most are not traditionally homeless street children, rather children who live on the street in order to earn money or other basic goods.

Exodus

The arrival of the Gobabis group was triggered after the majority of income on the streets there dried up following an intense public awareness campaign.

“The whole of last year we were overwhelmed with children coming from Gobabis. They came because the Gobabis community was sensitised to issues around street children, and they stopped giving money because that is what perpetuates the problem,” said Musukubili.

The street youths realised they could swop Gobabis street corners with Windhoek street corners, and began pouring in.

“The community in Gobabis stopped to give them money. Now they come to Windhoek, and they target places like Klein Windhoek, which is a posh area. It’s because of the money that they can access alcohol, drugs and petrol. They don’t save the money, but if you calculate the money they can make in a day, that is a lot of money for just being on the street,” Katimba said.

Addiction is a major problem for many of the children, and a lack of rehabilitation centres catering for children is another challenge the ministry hopes to address.

Bait

Social workers from the ministry are in close touch with the street children gangs on a weekly basis. They gangs are mostly made up of elderly kids who survive more permanently on the streets, with younger kids roped in to help create empathy in passers-by.

“What you see on the streets are basically the same group of older kids, but a new group of younger kids integrated. Because we remove them every time, and they just recruit again. They do this to attract the compassion of the community,” Musukubili explained.

The children’s survival on the streets is underpinned by “street smarts”, the social workers explained.

“They know how to play on your emotions. They will say they are an orphan, but it is not always like that when you start to investigate,” they explained.

But life on the streets is tough, and many of the street kids face a bleak future if they are not helped or refuse help.

Health

“When you live on the streets you become susceptible to crime and you could end up in jail,” Katimba said.

Also, street children become street adults whose own kids are born on the streets, and the vicious circle begins again.

Musukubili added that life on the street is dangerous for a number of reasons. Many children are abused either by other street children or adults, or suffer abuse at the hands of the public.

Health issues are ignored and can lead to serious long term problems or death.

“It is a very hard life.”

And yet, the social workers say there are stories of hope that keep them going.

“Eventually a person can change. It’s an individual decision that person has to make. And for that to happen, we need a lot of stakeholders to get involved, psychologists, health workers and churches. We have seen that the spiritual side becomes very important.”

Public responsibility

While the ministry is working on public outreach programmes, and public awareness programmes, the public can play a significant role in helping children stay of the streets.

“We cannot only look at the children for a solution. We also have to look at the community at large. What can they do to help? These children have no future if they remain on the street, and if they don’t go to school,” Lydia Shikongo, the deputy director of the child welfare directorate said.

“If we all take part, and we all look at them as our own children, it will make a difference to these children’s lives.”

Katimba added that the task of helping street children is up to the entire community and starts with the parents.

“Everybody in the community needs to take hands and try and work with the kids so we can prevent this early one.”

JANA-MARI SMITH

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