Children of the streets


It’s Tuesday evening. It’s dark and chilly. There’s a huddle of blankets and cardboard lining the length of a wall on Chota Motala Road in Raisethorpe.

All around there are piles of rubbish. There is a group of at least 20 to 25 children and young adults huddled together around a fire.

Most of them are sniffing glue from plastic bags; some are reusing empty juice bottles and chips packets.

These are the street children of Raisethorpe.

Unlike many of her peers who are heavily invested in the latest social-media trends and designer clothes, *Amahle’s (13) main worry is to ensure that she finds enough cash to sniff glue and survive another night.

Dressed in a knee-high skirt and a crop top, she admits that she walked out of home on a whim, after suggestions of a better life in Raisethorpe a year ago.

“I don’t know my mother. She’s never had time for me. No one in my family cares,” she told Weekend Witness.

Amahle’s grandmother has no idea of her whereabouts and she doubts anyone in her family worries about her.

“I’ve tried going back home. Every time I do, my grandmother calls me a phara (vagrant) and accuses me of stealing her belongings.”

Amahle smokes cigarettes, dagga and sniffs glue.

It is on the pavement, in the heart of Raisethorpe on Dr Chota Motala Road where she lives with a group of at least 25 other children and young adults.

The group is among over 400 homeless people roaming the streets of Pietermaritzburg; a quarter of them are children.

Their ages range from seven years to 30, and their reasons for leaving home vary widely.

Some cite poverty, others abuse. Some say they were forced out of home by their parents, while others left because they wanted to experience freedom, to be able to drink and smoke without being reprimanded.

A couple of metres away from Amahle, *Mbuso (17) struts up and down the section of the street he shares with a few friends and some older men.

He explains: “There was too much going on at home, and when everyone starts complaining they become a nuisance.”

Mbuso says he had to get away from it all, especially because the rest of the family caused him unnecessary grief.

“I realised I didn’t have to put up with it so I left,” he says.

He admits his troubles were not only on the home front, but that school also proved problematic.

“I failed Grade 6, and rather than repeat and make a fool of myself, I dropped out,’ he says.

He sought an alternative life on the street and has no desire to go back home.

Mbuso says at home there wasn’t enough food to go around, and without helping to bring in income, he felt that he was a burden to his single mother.

Sihle* is from Ezinketheni, and he says that “peer pressure and bad friends” landed him on the cold and dusty pavements of Raisethorpe.

This is his second year on the streets and life has not been easy.

He told Weekend Witness about the daily struggle to make money to buy something to eat. The R20 he gets every once in a while from washing cars or recycling cardboard hardly sustains him.

“I depend on the meals provided by Ikhayalethu Projects, but I go without food most days,” he says.

As darkness falls, the youngsters begin their routine of stacking cardboard together to recycle and plastic to start a fire with when the sun goes down, before settling on cardboard boxes and wrapping themselves up with all their worldly belongings.

To get a bit of shut-eye, they say they are forced to fight the full might of darkness armed with just the bare necessities.

Without conventional structures or resources to keep warm, those without shelter are forced to resort to unusual methods. They drape themselves in all the warm clothes they have and huddle under thick, sometimes worn-out, blankets. Plastic packets and cardboard are used to construct a makeshift bed.

For some privacy, or to hide from public view, they place their possessions around themselves.

These precious items are at risk of being stolen. But there is seldom a place to store them safely.

*Not their real names.

Why children choose street life

Dlalanathi operations director Robyn Hemmens said there are a number of reasons why children choose to live on the streets. Life could be hard at home or there could be behavioural problems.

She said some children are pushed onto the street following the death of their parents — sometimes due to HIV and Aids — or after running away from violence at home. Others live on the street simply because their families are too poor to look after them.

Before working for Dlalanathi, Hemmens worked for an organisation that served girl children who lived on the streets of Durban. It was through that experience that she got to understand the stories and observed the struggles children living on the streets face.

“Their stories are always a combination of truths and non-truths. It’s not that they are deceptive, it’s just that they make up stories they think you want to hear.

“What I found to be common in all of their stories is that when things got hard, there wasn’t an adult back home who they felt emotionally safe with. These children do not have safe emotional connections with adults.”

She said street children leave home in the quest to find friendship and the love they otherwise lack.

“Everybody needs to think about the way they’ve been treated, and why they’re living on the streets, and suffering on the streets,” Hemmens said.

“These kids are traumatised. They are kids who have had huge suffering, they’re abandoned ... going to the streets is an act of despair.”

Girls face an especially tough time.

“Some even end up selling their bodies to get money to buy food.”

She said on the streets there is rape, crime and consensual sex.

“Children are sexually active. They have sex because they seek emotional intimacy. They want physical closeness as we all do and they find it in sexual relationships. If you understand their emotional and psychological needs, you know why they are doing it.”

Hemmens said that HIV/Aids infection among street children continues to be a significant challenge, with reinfections occurring.

She said another challenge is getting children into a shelter once they have savoured street independence.

“The discomfort of going back into that space when you have tasted independence is huge. It requires building trust and a relationship with the child,” she said.

While calls are continually being made to move the children off the streets, Hemmens said forceful removals will not work.

“I can remember someone saying ‘we need to move onto the streets and round these children up and lock them in a facility and just get them off the streets’.

“That doesn’t work.

“If a child who has gained that level of independence is forced to stay somewhere that he or she hasn’t chosen to be, there is no way you can hold him or her in. They will find a way to run.”

Through Dlalanathi, Hemmens works with vulnerable communities, with families that are suffering from poverty, trauma and loss, as a preventative measure to strengthen the emotional connection between children and adults, using play.

Homelessness on the rise in PMB

The Khayalethu outreach programme at Youth for Christ (YFC) is one of the organisations in the city that tries to address the problem of homelessness.

Khayalethu outreach programme co-ordinator Simphiwe Sithole says that homelessness is becoming worse in the city. He says that the number of people living on the streets fluctuates, but they are concerned that it just continues to grow.

Popular hang-outs for street children include the Raisethorpe CBD, outside Upper Crust in Hesom Street, Victoria Road, Burger Street, around Woodburn in Scottsville and the New England Road area in Hayfields.

He says while multiple stakeholders have met with the municipality to devise plans to tackle homelessness in the city, nothing is ever implemented. “If the government doesn’t take responsibility … we are never going to correct this challenge. There are people who are trying, and there are those individuals who are just humouring those who are affected.”

Sithole says they have been in talks with the municipality for over eight months to establish a rehab centre for homeless drug addicts in the city centre after the closure of the Havelock Road centre. “The government is not doing nearly enough. At all levels it needs to partner with organisations and support them to carry out this work. In Pietermaritzburg we need many more overnight shelters with programmes that enable the homeless to exit the streets sustainably,” he said.

The Department of Social Development spokesperson Ncumisa Fandesi says the department has an integrated plan for children living and working on the streets. “Not all of them want shelter. In those cases, the department has different places where they can access food, a bath and then go back to the street.”

Fandesi says it is a “myth” to think that all street children want a home.

“In some cases they get taken to shelters and they go back to the streets because they are used to that life … It’s the life they know.”

She adds that they are working with the municipality to tackle the problem but cannot give time frames as the initiative is still in its early stages.

Social fabric has been torn apart

DR Sagie Narsiah of UKZN’s School of Social Science said the increased number of street children speaks to a social fabric that has been torn apart.

“The numbers say a lot about the value that we place on those who are most vulnerable in our society.”

Narsiah said high levels of unemployment also contribute to family breakdowns. “People have to find other ways of making a living, like doing piecemeal jobs or casual labour. As a result, children tend to get neglected and lost while in the care of other people.”

He said the government is lagging behind in ensuring that children of school-going age are at school. “It talks to a nation that has lost its moral compass and has fallen on tough times. People are making these choices as a survival mechanism.”

The glue that binds

For just a couple of rands, children living on the streets of Pietermaritzburg can block out the ugly reality they inhabit, and descend into a numbing parallel world for a little while; a world where there is no cold or hunger, strangers don’t point and stare, and loneliness doesn’t feature.

That’s all it costs to buy a bottle of sticky orange glue from shopkeepers who sell it, sometimes at discount and even on credit to the youngsters.

The children told Weekend Witness that they don’t care that they will eventually be unable to walk and could suffer a “sudden sniffing death”, when their lungs seize up due to the toxicity of the inhaled fumes.

“Today is all we can hope for, and tomorrow holds nothing to look forward to,” said one of them.

Research shows that glue is the most commonly abused inhalant in South Africa among street children.

According to News24, three types of glue are readily available on the streets — Neoprene, SS Neoprene and an unnamed, dark orange glue that is the most toxic.

All three have a high level of a neurotoxic chemical called toluene. When inhaled, usually from a small glass bottle, often concealed in an empty milk or cold-drink carton, the fumes are highly addictive and the effects nearly instantaneous.


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