CYC-Online 48 JANUARY 2003
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street children

Shelter is a safe haven for runaways

Pam Jackson considers the dilemma between undertaking preventive and development work in at-risk communities and providing shelter services for children who have run away.

The optimum service to prevent children running away to the streets would be for each community to have one or more NGOs who would pick up family difficulties at an early stage and work developmentally to change the circumstances that give rise to street children

We have all heard this solution touted at high levels of government: “Go to the source of the problem. Stop the tap dripping and you won’t have to mop up endless buckets of water."

Funders all over the world subscribe to this view.

Poverty eradication is a Social Welfare policy in South Africa. If we could achieve this, it would go a long way to resolving many of the difficulties and hardships that the majority of South Africans live with. It would certainly have an impact on the number of street children. The reality, however, is that we are not there. It will take years to have even basic services, like clean water, never mind even one NGO, in every community.

At Ons Plek – a 24-hour assessment centre and the only intake shelter for girl street children in Cape Town – we have looked long and hard at moving into a community to do preventative community development work. Considerable pressure has been put on us to close down our services in town. In the urban areas around Cape Town, as elsewhere, the grinding stress of poverty leads to a plethora of closely related social problems, such as alcoholism, child abuse “both physical and sexual “child neglect, wife-battering, gang violence, illness, starvation, low literacy levels and high levels of unemployment. A combination of these drives some children out of their communities onto the streets of central Cape Town. Some 150 girls per annum leave home.

They “stroll” in central Cape Town, rather than in their own communities primarily for three reasons:

Once on the streets, the children's lives disintegrate even further. Their concentration levels (needed for school and work) deteriorate, substance abuse increases, anti-social behaviour towards other people’s property and person increases. The longer they are on the streets, the harder it is for them to return to their own communities. A service is needed where these children are, in order to stabilise their behaviour so that they can participate in society. If circumstances dictate that they cannot return home, a service is needed to house them while they are prepared to care for themselves as full members of society. Children's homes are often full or have lengthy application procedures that preclude them from meeting these needs.

If Ons Plek’s shelter closed down and we moved our small resources to a community, we could help prevent children running away to town from that community. However, children from all other communities would still run to town – not to whichever community we were now in. By staying where we are, we can continue to prevent runaway girl children from many communities from becoming street children. The cost of one centre, compared to at least one in many communities, is also cheaper. A major advantage of being in a community is to be able to be involved in building the community. Ons Plek misses that. But a major plus about being in the city is that we remain focussed on female street children and do not get drawn into a myriad of local community issues.

Initially, shelters are not preventative because they are dealing with long-term street children. This changes over time. When Ons Plek first opened in 1988, there were approximately 60 girls who had been on the streets for three years, because there were no shelters for girls. Within three years, the average number of girls running away per year had swelled to approximately 120. After five years of Ons Plek’s existence, the number of girls living on the streets at any one time, independently of family units, had dropped to an average of seven. According to independent studies this is still the case. The number of girls running away to Cape Town remains at 120 to 150 per year, but the number of female street children has been drastically reduced. The fact that there is a service, which, although small, is able immediately to provide a safe haven from the streets for new arrivals, while working on long-term solutions for their problems, is what makes the difference.

Having successfully prevented runaways from becoming street children, Ons Plek is now at the point where girls are referred by community members when they first begin to sleep at a neighbour's house – a pattern that often predates running away. Thus the majority of girls now at Ons Plek have never been on the streets.

Simply having a shelter at a strategic spot does not achieve prevention. The shelter staff must see the shelter as a method, a means to an end and not an end in itself. Staff, firstly, must be committed to returning children home as soon as both home and child are ready and, secondly, to using the time in the shelter to impact on the children's emotional, social and educational growth if possible. Thirdly, the shelter must be situated in an area easily accessible to families by public transport.

In conclusion, developmental community work is the ideal way to prevent the phenomenon of street children. However, this method tends to be slow. The reality in South Africa today is that for an NGO with small resources more effective preventative work can be done using a shelter. In the future, as AIDS orphans fall through the cracks in community safety nets and run to central business districts, shelters may be their only hope to being re-routed back into a community.

This feature: Jackson, P. (2002). Shelter is a safe haven for runaways. ChildrenFIRST, Vol.6, No.45, pp.32-33

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