UNDER the BRIDGE: The Invisible Lives of Street children

Reflections on the growing global crisis of child homelessness

Published 3 months ago in Africa and Security

nairobi children homelessness

Street children kenya

Source: MADE IN THE STREETS, an organization dedicated to serving children from the streets of Nairobi, Kenya

“Please, Sir, have you got some change?”
“Hi boss, can you buy me food?”

No matter which major city you are in, this encounter is part of the cityscape. There are millions of street children across the world abandoned and left to fend for themselves. (Even contextually, the exact numbers are difficult to quantify due to the fluidity of street children). According to an estimate by the Consortium for Street Children, in Africa there are over 150,000 street children in Ethiopia; 30,000 in Accra, Ghana; about 30,000 in Kinshasa, DRC; around a million in Egypt; and between 250,000 to 300,000 in Kenya. Similar numbers exist across Asian and Latin American cities. Though dependent on context, the average age ranges between 0 and 18 years. Beyond this age are homeless youths up to 35 years, and then homeless families, or a combination of both. Between 2002 and 2007, I was part of these statistics. At the age of 12, a combination of physical and psychological abuse and poor role modelling sent me away from home in a gradual process that made me spend over five years as a street child in Nairobi and Mombasa, major cities in Kenya. 

The problem is not limited to Africa or the so-called developing world. In Europe, Canada and the United States, millions of children are running away from homes and living on the streets. Across the United States, for example, the National Centre on Family Homelessness (NCFH) reports that 1 in 45 children experience homelessness each year. The average age for a homeless child in the United States is nine. But there are kids below nine years living with their homeless families.

Causal factors

Children seldom end up on the street due to one event.  There are multiple causal factors – economics, social, psychological, and political issues - which add up in a process of increasing vulnerability. The World Bank calls the upsurge in family stress leading to separation of children from their families the ‘spiral of vulnerability,’ and this spiral often interacts gradually with other push-and-pull factors. Socioeconomic shocks combined with existing poverty drive families to the margins of survival. Families living in the margins of survival lack the resilience to cope with additional shocks such as the death of a parent or a job loss. Crises like this may force children to drop out of school and go to work to support the family. During this time, parents may reduce their level of child supervision. Difficulties at home encourage children to spend time in the streets during the day. Gradually they start sleeping in the streets, and as the connection with home breaks, some begin to make the streets their permanent base. 

In many low- and middle-income economies, conflict, disasters and climate change create or exacerbate conditions caused by existing poverty and social exclusion. Rural-urban migration leads to rapid urbanisation which results in large informal, unplanned settlements and slums. These settlements aggravate children’s vulnerability as many of them lack basic social services such as schools and security. 

The risk of violence within their families may also drive children to the streets. I was often caught in the middle of conflict between my parents. My father thought I was keeping my mother’s secrets whenever they had conflict and mum moved back to stay with her relatives. He would physically beat me to reveal information about her businesses, most of which I was never aware of. Maybe I was. I resorted to leaving home and staying out in the local town for days before a neighbour would spot, ‘arrest,’ and send me back. Eventually, my cousin sold me the idea of moving from the rural town to the capital city. This was bad role-modelling: being only 12 years old, I had no idea until he mentioned it. The corporal punishment prevalent in many African homes, schools and communities may drive children away from their homes and communities. It takes a village to educate a child in Africa, right? So goes the saying. That education also involves discipline in the form of corporal punishment. For example, growing up in rural Kenya, when a neighbour or a stranger found me making a mistake, they had the right to ‘discipline’ me on behalf of my parents.

Other factors include cultural attitudes and behaviours. In societies that harbour beliefs about existence of witches and black magic, for example Akwa Ibom and Cross River States in Nigeria, children accused of witchcraft are abandoned and end up on the streets. According to a 2010 UNICEF report, Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa, once accused of witchcraft, they are stigmatized and discriminated for life, subjected to psychological and physical violence by family members, their circle of friends, church pastors and traditional healers, and are vulnerable to sexual violence. In 2010, the BBC quoted UNICEF’s Regional Child Protection officer for West and Central Africa who noted that more than 20,000 street children in the DR Congo capital Kinshasa had been accused of Witchcraft. In Senegal, Human Rights Watch found that in traditional Quranic boarding schools (daaras), teachers (marabouts) force over 50,000 boys who reside in their shelters to beg daily for quotas of money, rice or sugar. 

Wretched of the Cities? 

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures
is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them;
that is the essence of inhumanity.

Excerpt from The Devil's Disciple by George Bernard Shaw

Viewed as the ‘wretches of the cities’, street children and homeless people remain among the most invisible members of the world’s populations, often overlooked by governments, policymakers, and the society in general. You can see them almost anywhere, sleeping on pavements, cardboard boxes or bare ground. They come together under bridges and trees, their belongings in plastic bags or broken supermarket trolleys, symbolizing lives on the move. They work as car-washers or parking attendants. They beg for money to buy food, and when there is none, they eat leftovers from restaurants and passers-by, or scavenge from bins. Most spend one to fifteen years, and even entire lives on the streets. They abuse substances and drugs to find relief from the pressures of the street, to sleep easily and endure pain, violence and hunger. In some cities, those with young babies are often used by adults to solicit sympathy and obtain money by begging at major street intersections and in busy shopping areas. In my early days in Mombasa, I begged money for an adult drug addict which he used to buy his drugs. While the majority lack education, some have basic education. They read on the streets and are often interested in going back to school. 

In Cape Town, South Africa, where they (homeless) number more than 7,000, their average day consists of waking up at around 5:30 am, packing up and hiding their belongings, walking to areas where they would spend their day trying to make money, and then returning to their sleeping posts at around 16.30 pm. 

Public Perception

The number of street children are increasing globally. But are these numbers increasing or are societies progressively becoming ‘aware’ of the “dirty urchins” that pollute the streets and disturb their peace? While some members of the public show compassion and empathy, complaints from the public often result in municipal laws that discriminate against or even harm street and homeless people. Their rights are continuously being violated, especially when international events come to town. Across major cities from Buenos Aires to Cape Town, Sao Paulo to Monterey to Nairobi, law enforcement agencies carry out cleansing or displacement of street children and homeless people ahead of major events. For example, many cities often want to please international delegates. In most African cities, often when dignitaries come, road-side stalls in which whole families rely for income are cleared while taps are left dry across informal settlements as water is piped to city fountains to please the visitors. Whenever there was an international event in Nairobi or Mombasa we were arrested, held in police cells, and released when the dignitaries had left. 

In the run up to the Rio Olympics in 2016, a UN Report in October 2015 accused the Brazilian police of killing street children to ‘clean the streets’ in what the vice president of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, Renate Winter described as an attempt to “present a problem-free city to the world”. This had also been observed during the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil but remained largely unaddressed. Ironically, Brazil also hosted a side event, the Street World Cup for street children. Research indicates that the success of designed interventions will be effective if the community respects, protects and provides opportunities to street children and homeless families rather than just trying to get rid of them. 

Sao Paulo, Brazil: a reminder of a global problem 

In May 2015 I visited Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. I was in a coffee shop inside Guarulhos International airport and I was approached by a young man. Though I could not understand the Portuguese text in the paper he was holding, I understood he was fundraising money for some programme or event. But from his clothes – dirty, oily and a tattered shirt – I quickly concluded that he was a street child. I remembered how I used similar strategies, initially to dishonestly solicit money for a non-existent orphanage or church programme, and later to genuinely fundraise part of my high school fees. We ate breakfast together but I could not understand his Portuguese, neither he my English, so conversing was not possible. 

I was in Brazil to attend an international conference on development policy diffusion as part of my masters in international relations at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. However, to be greeted by a street child on my first trip outside Africa, and at the largest airport in Brazil, was a surprise, especially since where I come from airports are the last place you would expect such an encounter. Later on, during the two weeks I spent in Brazil, seeing many others in the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro reminded me that the challenges facing our world are universal, especially in the Global South. According to estimates, Brazil has between 200, 000 and 8 million street children spread across its cities. Brazil’s situation compares to South Africa, where the economy has failed to grow, inequality is rising, and many people are becoming socially excluded. South Africa and Brazil have the highest inequality rates in the world. 

In the United States, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 553,742 people were homeless on a single night in the US in 2017. Though there has been a steady decline in most cities, the situation remains unprecedented in others like Los Angeles and New York where more than 50,000 and 75,000 people lack homes respectively.  

Lessons from life on the streets

People may assume, and often they do, that being a street child (or homeless person) is nothing short of terrible and even hopeless. But I learnt a lot from that life. Street life taught me important life skills such as – empathy, compassion, dealing with ambiguity, proactiveness, resiliency, courage and most importantly respect for diversity. Interactions with other street children from regions, and ethnicities across Kenya, sharing, storytelling, the bonds we created as a community, made me realize that as a society, we might be from different nationalities and ethnicities, but our struggles are always the same.  In the streets we were an ethnically diverse family living together as brothers and sisters without discriminating against each other on the basis of ethnic or racial origin, supporting and sharing the little food we could get from the bins or begging. 

Fate had made sure that my first experiences interacting with other Kenyan ethnicities was as a street child. These experiences have shaped my leadership vision and inspired an interest in diversity – through cultural awareness and cosmopolitanism – and career. I spend time travelling across the world to become more culturally aware and champion for respect for diversity. In addition, experiences growing up in children orphanages inspired a desire to work in the environment and projects that aim to contribute to reduction and elimination of the structural and other causal factors that may render children and families homeless. 

Interventions or Potential solutions

The reasons why children end up on the streets are quite complex and, in some cases, specific, and require context-based and multi-sectoral approaches to address. Often the arrival of a child on the streets represents an active decision on the part of the child in response to situations of serious rights violations at home. The combination of causal factors and the experience of growing up homeless means that these children grow up in traumatic conditions, are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems and may be delayed in their emotional development. But with better support many leave the streets to accomplish extraordinary things. Whether holding a bottle of glue, sleeping in shacks or eating from the bins, I always remained optimistic, believing that salvation shall come. To paraphrase the words of Madiba (Nelson Mandela), I remained fundamentally an optimist, whether that came naturally, or my experiences nurtured it, I cannot say. In my own lived and transformation experience, and now working to address these issues, I find that successful interventions (including policy programming) often take an individual case management approach, taking the child’s own perspective with expert guidance to finding alternatives to life in the streets. 

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This article was written for, and first appeared in the second edition of Young African Magazine (YAM), an alumni publication of Mandela Rhodes Scholars by  the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. It’s an excerpt from an upcoming book. The book takes at its point my personal experiences growing up supplemented with analytical research on the topic of homelessness with examples from Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and California to contextualize the challenge of homelessness, specifically the phenomenon of child homelessness, within international development policy debates.

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