The place where childhood goes to die

TAURIQ HASSEN

At the break of dawn, street children crawl out of some of the most unimagineable spaces, wipe the sleep from their eyes and set off to the nearest traffic light to start begging for money to buy their first meal of the day.

Some of them scavenge through dirt bins, others beg at a local store, but one thing is for sure, it’s a hard life when you are child battling the everyday challenges on the street.

It was nine years ago when Nabeel, 17, was abandoned by his parents on a open field and picked up by a nearby family, whom he later ran away from, claiming to have been abused.

Nabeel said he found himself on the streets from the tender of age of 10, at first begging door to door, then targeting motorists at the traffic lights, before finding himself in a shelter.

“The older children at the shelter were always beating me up, and when I told the people in charge, they never listened, and I just ran away again and went to live by myself under a bridge,” Nabeel said, revealing that he doesn’t know his surname.

Nabeel’s story is not unique. There are thousands of children roaming the streets, with some of them claiming to prefer a life without boundaries.

“There were people who tried to help me, but I always end up running away, because I can’t trust anybody,” said Nabeel. “My own parents left me to die.”

After admitting that he had had his fair share of drug-related problems, as well as having been involved in crime, the young man said he had no choice, as life was rough on the streets.

“People always just look at us like street children. We use drugs, we rob people, we just want money. I didn’t ask for this, but I am almost 10 years on the street,” he said, glancing at every car that slowed down, for a show of interest and the possibility of a hand-out.

Although Nabeel spoke openly to the Tatler, he did not want his picture to be published. Asked why he felt this way, he laughed and said sarcastically: “My parents might try to find me.”

Over the years, his survival instincts kicked in and Nabeel attached himself to another group of street children operating around Kenilworth, turning begging into an organised business.

“We wake up in the morning and then go in groups to beg in the area. Some of the boys get into trouble by trying to steal things, but I gave that up,” he claimed.

As sad as his story might seem, Nabeel’s new clique has residents worried. One of them is Tess Hawk.

“I am very concerned about what is going on. Everyone including the authorities seem to feel helpless. So I am feeling quite desperate for both the kids and mess, possible crime and drugging in terms of glue sniffing,” she said.

Ms Hawk said the children slept between the Paddock Wood complex and the police flats at Parkhof on Union Street, but had also started hanging out under neighbours’ carports in Moor Street and Doncaster Road.

“They sleep across the road from Stodels on Doncaster Road adjacent to McDonalds. They sleep across the road from the entrance to Pick * Pay alongside the soccer fields. So wherever they sleep, they leave their mess or filth, so there is this constant trail left behind them,” she added.

Francene Meyer said: “There are no rules governing them, and when you find yourself in a situation like that, things can become quite interesting, especially for a child.”

Opposite Ms Meyer’s home is a spot that is regularly occupied by the children, who will be seen minutes later, begging at the nearby traffic lights.

“They are chased away very often, because here they try and sniff their glue, use drugs and sometimes even fight with one another over the day’s takings and even food. You have to feel sorry for them, and I certainly do, because I have children of my own, but there comes a time when enough is enough and their sad stories just won’t do,” Ms Meyer said.

Last month, the City of Cape Town’s reintegration unit visited the Kenilworth area following complaints they had received from residents.

The unit found six individuals loitering in the area and witnessed several others moving away when they saw officials approaching.

The six young people found on the site were profiled and were estimated to be aged between 15 and 20.

Mayoral committee member for social development and early childhood development, Suzette Little, said the street children had “no intention” of being relocated and assisted.

“The youth were reluctant to engage with our staff and showed no intention of leaving the area because they support themselves by begging at the intersections along Doncaster Road,” Ms Little said.

During the latest operation, the unit also stumbled across a woman and two minors, who appeared to have slept on the pavement in Union Road.

She claimed to have visited her boyfriend in Kenilworth and not had taxi fare to return home.

“Unfortunately, she told the same story during a previous engagement, which indicates that she is living on the street.

She refused to divulge any information relating to her family,” said Ms Little.

She added that the City’s street people policy had helped hundreds of people, but could not force anyone to accept assistance.

“Those who choose to remain on the street can be compelled to leave by law enforcement or the South African Police Service if they are found to be in contravention of one or more by-laws or are engaging in criminal activity,” Ms Little said.

She appealed to the public to give responsibly.

“Hand-outs simply perpetuate the cycle of dependence and give rise to aggressive begging and loitering. Should members of the public want to help alleviate the plight of those who find themselves on the street, they are encouraged to donate directly to a shelter instead or volunteer their time to make a meaningful difference in the lives of street people.”

U-Turn’s David Damon said they had a service centre in Claremont where homeless people accessed their services daily.

“On the odd occasion, that children are accompanied by adults to our soup kitchen during the day, we talk to the parents because children are not allowed by law to sleep on the street with them,” he said.

U-Turn also contacts the police’s Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit (FCS) which can remove the children.

U-turn is a Christian non-profit organisation founded in 1997. They have a meal voucher initiative which is run in the Claremont, Rondebosch, Kenilworth and Wynberg areas.

The vouchers help the general public put homeless people in contact with U-turn for food, clothing and long-term assistance.

Make contact with their offices at 155 2nd Avenue, Kenilworth on 021 674 6119 or fax 086 555 0496 or email info@homeless.org.za or visit their Claremont offices at 4 Stanley Road 021 674 0324.