Street Children in a Child-Friendly City
All over the world, a limitless number of children live, grow up and eventually become adults in the streets. They can be stumbled upon walkways and can be found underneath bridges. They sleep on asphalt roads apparently unmindful of their environs. They ramble in the streets and beg, but are frequently ignored by people passing by. Grubby, famished, emotionally wounded and mortified, these children go through life devoid of hope and optimism for a better tomorrow. They are today’s youth without a childhood, and perhaps, also without a future.
In the City of Gentle People
Dumaguete was recipient of the definitive “Child-Friendly City” Award for four (4) consecutive years (2009-2012). Ironically, when the city received this illustrious recognition, street children roam around the city and are scattered in major thoroughfares. They can also be seen sleeping at the front doors of leading fast food chains like Jollibee and McDonald’s. In sidewalks and even in the middle of the highways, these children beg for money and food from pedestrians and motorists. People dining inside restaurants and those enjoying inside coffee houses and snack food outlets can see these street children hungrily staring at them -- possibly waiting for crumbs and morsel to be given to them -- while they eat, making the diners feel guilty that while they have so much, some people in this world do not even have a scrap of food to appease their long irate stomachs.
When I was appointed Deputy Officer for Education, Training and External Affairs of Task Force SAGARR (under the administration of then Mayor Manuel Sagarbarria), it was then that I saw the gravity of the problem, how come there are street children in a place that is known to be generous and compassionate, I witnessed what the government should have done but didn’t do, and why these children are still in the streets up to now. While I was doing my tasks, I also became an eyewitness to how insensitive many parents have become, how the “elements” in the streets have turned these children into callous beings, and how incompetent our city officials really are when it comes to handling issues such as that of the street children.
Glimpses of Dumaguete’s Street Children
The SIDEWALK – Their KINGDOM
The sidewalks are not just home to Dumaguete City’s street children; these sidewalks serve as their inviolable territory. On the sidewalks, they earn their income, they meet and mingle with street children friends, they gain experience not just in parking motorcycles but also in the art and science of pick-pocketing, begging and looting the motorcycles they park.
“John Rey,” a 14-year old street child have been a sidewalk resident for two straights years. His life consists of a simple routine -- sleep at Rago’s at night, earn around P100 daily from parking motorcycles in the daytime; during the day, he smokes and drinks occasionally, usually from the prodding of other street children. For “John Rey,” the streets are a lot better than home, after all, mom is in Mindanao and dad is in Manila and he doesn’t have an idea if they are ever going back to Dumaguete or if they will ever see each other again.
It is tragic and painful to hear John Rey say that he doesn’t care a bit if he has his parents with him or not -- much as he needs them -- because he has long accepted the fact that his present life is what he needs to focus on at the moment, if he has to survive.
Many times, John Rey has been goaded by the other street children to get inside malls and steal, but he doesn’t comply and doesn’t want to engage in that kind of activity. It appears that despite his station in life and despite the negative label that the community has given to street children, John Rey has few of his values intact when he said that for him “stealing is bad and that he is not inclined to commit the act” no matter what the others tell him. It seemed that in spite of his youth and the indifference building up inside him, he can still assert himself and manage to say NO to what is morally wrong.
John Rey confided that he sometimes think of school and his future or if he has any future at all (he is good in Math, can understand a little English), but as soon as the power of rugby seeps into his consciousness, such thoughts are easily dismissed from his psyche, and in its place, is the pungent and intoxicating power of the inhalant reigning supreme.
Although his 4-month stay at the Youth Home made him realize that it offers him a better life and that the streets are not a good place to stay for a kid like him, still, street life has that unexplainable magnetism to John Rey. While carton boxes are his makeshift bed, newspapers for blanket, enduring the chilliness of the night is just a small price to pay for wanting to be in the streets again. After all, it is his territory, it is his kingdom.
Inhalants - Their SHIELD
All the street children admitted to having used rugby and other inhalants in the course of their street life existence. For these children, sniffing glue/rugby was the best way to 1) gain peer acceptance, 2) avoid being ‘manhandled’ by the bigger and more mature street boys, 3) be oblivious to hunger, pain and loneliness, and the easiest route to 4) forget their plight as children living in the streets.
“Marvin,” 14 years old confessed to using rugby so that he can be accepted to the “cliques” of physically bigger and older street children. It appears that for Marvin, acceptance was a big thing and it doesn’t matter what the bigger boys will order him to do as long as he can be a member of the group. Likewise, it is also a way to stay clear of being harassed, browbeaten and bullied by the bigger and more experienced street boys. Marvin who is also a young recruit of the feared “Bloods” gang, has experienced being ordered to steal and be a “look-out” when a member of the opposing gang -- the Crips -- need to be intimidated or eliminated. This 14-year old street child acknowledged to be constantly carrying with him a knife but has never hurt or killed anyone yet. Rugby is also the most effective method not to feel hunger, physical and emotional pain and the unbearable longing of having a mother around.
Aware that rugby is a popular inhalant used by street children (due to its accessibility and affordability), business establishments selling this product have ordered their salespeople to be cautious in selling this to children and be on guard always of people (especially minors) who go to their stores to buy rugby.
Due to store owners’ vigilance, rugby’s accessibility has significantly diminished, however, an alternative has been found to take its place – vulcaseal. Apparently, this is “stronger,” and “more effective,” and using the words of one former street child who was interviewed, vulcaseal is known within the street children community as “kusog kaayo ang tama.” When asked why they use these inhalants and what it can do to them, the answer was – “daling makabuyod,” (immediate dizziness) which instantly leads them either to stupor, to dreamland or to the much sought-after “never never land.”
For these children who are consistently hungry, who are continuously battling with life, who are endlessly fighting for a diminutive share of acceptance from peers, who are incessantly struggling against feelings of loneliness, and are unremittingly besieged with daily attacks either from other street children or from the police – rugby and vulcaseal appear to offer the much needed refuge from daily incursions of street life. Indeed, these inhalants provide the sanctuary they need to temporarily forget the vile and contemptible plight they are in.
Although there is no sight of a bright tomorrow, the dizziness and temporary “high” will make their lives bearable, getting them geared up for the next day’s battle that will again take place in the sidewalks and alleys in the Child-Friendly City that is likewise known as the City of Gentle People.
“Trust NO ONE” – Their PROTECTION
Most street children have the inherent inclination not to trust, not because they don’t want to but because it’s one of the best ways to protect themselves. For these children, to trust is good but not to trust is better.
“John Lloyd,” a 16-year old street child, appears shy but only on the surface; actually the ‘timidity’ is a coping mechanism that is really a product of distrust of other people, especially those whom he just met. During the interview, he constantly gave vague responses. It was obvious that he was putting up a thick wall between himself and the interviewer. Asking him questions and getting clarifications from his very curt responses was like digging out a “square peg in a round hole.”
Evidently, street children have trust issues and nobody can blame them. These children felt betrayed, though they may not articulate such feelings but deep inside them, they feel that they have been let down by the very people who should have been protecting them – their parents -- the ones who either have abandoned them or have pushed them to be on the streets. Of course, they do not have the guts to question the kind of life that has been handed to them but in the deepest recesses of their hearts, the question lingers – “why do I have to live if this is the kind of life that I will lead???”
Simply put, these children feel so much betrayal that the only way to counter such would be to stop trusting. It doesn’t matter to them who they are not trusting as long as they don’t allow anyone to enter into their lives. If they do trust, it will take some time, perhaps years, before they can actually decide that it is OK to trust anyone.
THIS Moment – Their ONLY TIME
Many of the street children who have been interviewed didn’t have plans for the future, not even short-term preparations and not even hints of desiring for opportunities of any kind. They are so preoccupied with surviving, they are inclined to “live for the moment.” The “future” is for them a far-fetched concept they cannot comprehend or even will have the chance to experience.
“Benjie,” 15 years old just gave a surreptitious look, a smirk then a devious smile when asked if he wants to go to school or if he would consent to an adoption arrangement. To this, he just looked down then after a few minutes of silent contemplation, stares blankly at the clouds in the sky. Looking at him, you get the feeling that he is not interested in anything that goes beyond “today” or “this moment.”
Much as it is obvious that these children do dream of a better life and it is apparent that there are talents and capabilities hidden in those reticent and diffident countenances, they exhibit a kind of “don’t care” attitude, not because they really don’t give a damn but because they think it is just so improbable for them to have a shot at success or real happiness. Their difficult situations have pushed them to think always of the “present” and because they have to survive, it is imperative for them to busy themselves with whatever is at hand or someone else will get there ahead and take everything and leave nothing.
SURVIVAL – Their GOAL
With no concept of the future, street children just aim to live one day at a time. As long as they can eat or find the ways to secure the next meal each day, everything will be fine.
Yet, in their world, food is not the only commodity worth fighting for. There is the struggle for sleeping space, for supremacy over the other children and for other people’s dole-outs.
To survive all these, a street child either has to be cunning (to outdo the others) or submissive (to appease the dominant ones). A street child also has to be very resourceful, the reason why many of them resort to stealing from malls or snatching bags from pedestrians.
Street children, for all we know, have intellects surpassing that of any university student but because of their urgent needs in life, they are confined to thinking of where to get the next meal, how to evade the bullies or where to get the next round of glue to sniff.
With the manifold battering that come to their lives which make their existence extremely complicated, these street children have an exceedingly simple goal – survive at whatever cost.
Indifference, Insensitivity, Inaction
Initially, I was stunned by the indifference of people. Not just the unresponsiveness of those from the government but also from Dumaguetnons themselves. I could not fathom how Dumaguetnons -- who have always been known to be sincerely hospitable, generous and kind -- can comfortably walk around the major thoroughfares in the city and act as if the street children were not there; it is as if these children were ghosts, they traverse the streets without people noticing them or seeing them.
More than being stunned, I am dumbfounded by the way many DSDW workers treat these children. Instead of being empathetic, these social workers view the children as additional load to their daily tasks, an encumbrance they could not get rid of, an affliction they could not find a treatment to. Thus, when a street child is being whisked to the DSWD office, one can hear these social workers reprimanding the children, making the children feel that it was their fault that they were brought into this world. I cannot believe that such insensitivity can come from people who studied and were trained to understand people in society, people who were trained to make the unfortunate ones feel that there is much to hope for in this life.
But most of all, I got dazed with the indecisiveness and inaction from the government. Among the favorite reasons of government people why street children are still in the streets is “lack of budget.” This is pure hogwash! The more apt term really is “lack of imagination” or “lack of initiative” and I guess, “lack of compassion.”
Government keeps saying that they have no place for these children. Again, hogwash. There are a number of orphanages in the city and organizations that accept their kind; all these organizations require is that these children have their birth certificates with them. After all, these organizations are also being audited and monitored by their benefactors, thus the need for papers. Once, I asked a social worker why she can’t bring a street child to any of the “safe homes” and her response was that there was no birth certificate. It ends there. So I inquired, if that was the only problem, why not produce one? Either she goes to the family (the street children in Dumaguete have families) or file for “late registration,” it’s a common practice. I cannot understand why such a simple act makes them cringe as if they would spend thousands of money. It was then that I came to the conclusion that people have become so uncaring. As long as the street child in front of them is not their child – it’s OK.
The dilemma of street children demands urgent solutions. Their incidence is extremely high -- whether the lowest estimation of 200,000 or highest approximation of 2,000,000 is accepted. The plight of these children and the conditions under which they live and survive is crushing. Undoubtedly, both the government and the general public would want to find a solution to this issue. Why is it then that in the majority of cases, we tend to “look the other way?”
Is it apathy? Is it lack of concern to a group that has no voice or power? Is it a feeling of guilt because of our powerlessness to do anything to lessen the anguish and the torment from which these children obviously suffer? Or is it that these children represent, in an exceptionally perceptible way, society’s failure or reluctance to care for all its citizens, which led to their exclusion from mainstream society?
Notwithstanding the efforts which view street children as “defenseless” or “children at risk in need of protection,” the established perspective is that they are really “delinquents” or “crooks” who come from pitiable backgrounds and heartless parents. Given this, government policies are frequently restricted to a legal or enforcement approach that tends to overlook the root causes of the problem.
The root of this problem actually runs very deep that solutions require changes and paradigm shifts on multiple levels in order to address individuals, families, communities, and the larger world around these children. It cannot be done by governments alone, by public officials alone, by schools alone or by the private sector alone. ALL of us have a stake to this problem.
We, the residents of Dumaguete can do something about these children who live and wander in our city streets. Let us start doing something for them. Let us begin NOW!