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38 MARCH 2002
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Acceptance: the central quality of our services

At the end of 2001 Annette Cockburn ended her fifteen-year involvement as Director of the Homestead (Projects for Street Children) in Cape Town. She talked to Brian Gannon.

I am always interested in the route people travel in coming to work with children and youth.

Teaching has always been in my blood – English and Drama, some may say appropriately! I’ve taught in many settings – in the Drama Department at Natal University in Pietermaritzburg, at Kings School in the Midlands of Natal, at a mission school in rural KwaZulu Natal, and, in stark contrast, at St John's Diocesan School for Girls. I worked at the Child Guidance Clinic at the University of Durban Westville (where I was first to meet Barry Lodge. I wore long boots and he long hair – we were the last of the hippies!). I taught my own children at home for a year in a remote mountain village, and spent a year in Italy. Eventually my kids wanted to come to UCT and this brought me to Cape Town where I taught in various places including the UCT Ballet School, Herzlia and the Community Arts Project. I did a diploma in Adult Education at UCT which was the most significant educational experience of my life.

So here I was in Cape Town, Child Welfare had advertised for a black male social worker who was a committed Christian to work with street children – I thought why not?

In those early days many saw street children as “a problem that might be solved”.

Street children are an urban reality in the developing world. No prizes for guessing why. In any community where there is grinding poverty – and all the inevitable consequences of this – a number of children will become desperate enough.

South African street children's circumstances are different from those in many other countries. In India, for example, whole families may be on the streets, so there are adults, family around. In South America street work is common for many people and one finds children trading, shoe-shining, etc., as part of the urban scene. In our cities there has been no “street culture” in our urban centres where street children are drawn. They don’t “fit”.

Many different ways of working with street children have been tried.

Depended on how they were seen – whether as nuisances or as “poor little things”. City officials, commerce, police, tourism, these groups too easily saw street children as an embarrassment and a mess to be cleaned off the streets “before the season”. This attitude tended to demonise street children and has always made them, tragically and unnecessarily, a point of conflict. (Actually, South African street children are surprisingly unpoliticised, but tend to be used as political currency.) On the other hand there were those who adopted a sentimental or patronising attitude.

Too few saw street children simply as children who needed what all children need. What we have seen over the years is that there is no single mode of working with street children. Slowly, and as we learned more, at the Homestead we have built a range of services – phased intervention. This allows for different “entry points” or “staging posts” where the service matches where the kids are at.

Given the degree of marginalisation, many are so untrusting that only desperate hunger or cold will attract them to a shelter. It may take months for them to get on to a more regular track, get back to school. Others just needed the opportunity to rejoin the mainstream.

Were there “quick fix” solutions suggested?

Many people suggested getting kids out of town, into the country, on to farms. But these are urban kids, there’s no changing that. Many suggested a completely non-residential approach – work with the children on the streets. But you can’t go to school from under a bridge! These are children, and we’re not going to succeed in building any sense of security on dangerous and unprotected streets. Non-residential programs are too fragile for young children. There is a place for street work with older children and youth.

What I do think we need is closer co-operation on the part of all service-providers where there has often tended to be too much of a competitive spirit. I am convinced that connection with the “official” system, for example, registration and good communication with the state departments, offers the necessary stability in a field which is almost by definition vulnerable and diffuse.

Does one ever reconcile those who would “get rid” of street children and those who would help?

After thousands of talks and articles on the subject over the past fifteen years, I think most people don’t change. Those who take a position against street children are very hard to reach. They’re not going to come to a meeting or read an article. They often represent a hostile constituency. They feel that “street children ruin the inner city” and they are in denial about the universal phenomenon of urban blight – that CBDs “come and go” worldwide. It’s easy to scapegoat the street children.

The only way that people change attitude about this is to come and see for themselves. Personalise or individualise the abstract concept of the “street child” by meeting one, talking, looking into their face, that’s when people change. “Come to the Homestead,” I say, and they rarely go away without a change of view. This happens with business people and school children. “Meet the child eye to eye.”

Hard to track street children, but how are we helping, how well do these children do?

Well, you would have to say what your criteria are. I like the simple Freudian concept of the integrated man – one who can love and work. One should want no more for any kid than this. And of course we don’t have enough data to go on. My best hunch? I would say that 30% of street children probably do OK eventually. I know that so many get swallowed up again by the worst in our cities. But I also know that even those who appear to have failed have taken something enduring from their time with us.

A young man comes into my office. “Where have you been all this time?” I ask. “In prison,” he says. He tells me why he was there and that he has been paroled. Do I know how he can find his mother? I look at him in his skimpy short-sleeved vest. “You be better to hide those gang tattoos on your arms,” I say. “Go and see Katy in the clothes store room and get a decent shirt.” He comes back ten minutes later looking better. We talk about his mother, I give him some train fare. “I'll let you know how things go,” he says as he leaves.

How are we helping, you ask? I am deeply moved that this young man, for all the obvious pain and violence and loss and confusion in his life, could walk back into the Homestead years later and know that he would be received with dignity. That perhaps the one gift he had received from us, and which could last him for his life, was acceptance. That Katy in the clothes room would immediately see, rationally and respectfully, what he needed.

That could be the central quality of our services. Acceptance of their status. While the busy city may reject and resent them, we can at least acknowledge their hard-chosen place in our society, and offer them our acceptance and respect. And that’s something they can take away with them.

From here?

We must go on listening to the individuals and trying to understand the phenomenon. While there is too little research on work with this moving population (plenty on why they are on the streets), the payback from our own limited studies (scouring five hundred files) have told us something. Our most recent development, adding to the streetwork and shelters, the children's homes, the off-street and the education programs, has been work with families in the areas which seem to be most associated with “generating” street children. One of the most obvious needs we see here is for work and income, and so we have been piloting some job creation projects. This has the seeds of preventive work, but ultimately it just brings us full circle into the socio-political-economics arena which is ultimately the responsibility of everyone.

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