Focus on desperate, homeless children

Zolile Mdala and Paul Hooper at the Homestead in District Six.

People visiting the city centre should take a serious look at themselves because they are destroying lives by giving handouts to child beggars on the street. This is the view of Paul Hooper, a leading child-homelessness practitioner and director of The Homestead, a project which helps children get off the street.

Mr Hooper said they have a record of about 33 children who move around in the city centre.

“Some will come on weekends and during school holidays. There are three main reasons why they move around during this time: They get meals at school, so now that there is no food, they are hungry; they are bored; or they are brought here by people who want to exploit them.”

Mr Hooper strongly criticised people who create “gateway communities” – a place where unsupervised children learn how to beg for money, buy drugs and get used to life on the street.

“We need a very strong programme to re-educate the community about what they are doing.”

Mr Hooper said that children who come into the city centre are all from impoverished areas on the Cape Flats, looking for a place to get money easily.

“The city centre is alive and vibrant, and there are lots of tourists. People give because they want to help, but they are not really helping,” Mr Hooper pointed out.

He highlighted some of the issues in the city centre, which make reaching out to the children a lot harder. One of the problems is that street children are arrested when they are found by the police, so they move around all the time, or they hide.

“To arrest them is not the correct way to go about it. When the police pick them up, they are put into a place of safety, which is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Also, arresting the children makes them distrust authorities, so they often don’t want to speak or reach out to social workers, making our work harder.”

Some of the children are also protected by the adults with whom they move, and by whom they are often exploited.

Mr Hooper said there were many paedophiles on the streets of the CBD. “The social workers and field workers are threatened by the adults who use these children and pretend to protect them, so the authorities are sometimes scared and they turn a blind eye.”

He said they have seen an increase in mothers begging with their children, and children coming into the city centre with their school uniforms on. “The problem with the CBD is that the situation is not managed properly. We need to constantly educate people and businesses and let them know that they must not give to street children. The message you are sending is that the people who exploit them are doing the right thing. Rather give to an organisation like the Homestead, or don’t give anything at all.”

He said they are worried about the upcoming festive season, when they are bound to see an increase in children begging in the city centre, Woodstock, Sea Point and Camps Bay, among other areas. “If the situation is not managed, we are going to end up with a crisis.”

The Homestead, which has offices in Strand Street, has centres or children’s homes all over the metropole where they take children off the street and place them in a programme where they are put back into school and their needs are taken care of.

The Homestead in District Six now accommodates 25 older boys who have been through the rehabilitation programme and are now settled down. Mr Hooper said all the younger children have been moved to the bigger premises in Khayelitsha.

“The District Six centre is too near to the street and the children are too exposed to factors that could cause them to go back to a life on the street. Here we keep the boys who are settled down and are almost going to leave us.”

The Homestead takes children from as young as six years old. They are taken off the street and into the care of the centre. Each child in the centre is protected by a court order. When the children are 18 years old, by law they are old enough to leave the Homestead, but can apply to stay until the age of 21. Most of the children who leave the Homestead come back to help the others who have been taken in. Mr Hooper said one of the biggest challenges is educating people about giving to child beggars. The field worker for the Cape Town CBD area, Zolile Mdala said many children come to the city centre because they were being abused at home, or because of poverty.

“When I go to the streets the children explain that life is hard at home. We keep a record of the children we find. They are between nine and 13 years old.”

“I’ve been working with street children for over 10 years. I’ve seen all the problems they face. What I see is older children or street people exploiting and bullying them. They are forced to beg for the adults, who in turn make them think they are protecting them and give them drugs.

“We appeal to the people to please work with us. If you see a child begging in school uniform, report it to the Homestead or to the CID. And please, do not give to the street children. Tell them to find help and be stern, but not aggressive.”

Mr Hooper said the children who are rescued are not dangerous, but are traumatised and want to escape from their difficult circumstances. “There is no need for a child to be on the street. We have about 90 children in our care, and we are licensed to take 110. We never turn a child away, and we don’t keep them from their families, because that’s all a child wants – is to be with their families.”