A city magistrate was at his wit’s end recently to decide what do with a 10-year-old boy who had been charged for robbery with an offensive weapon. Posing as beggars, the boy and his 13- and 15-year-old partners approached an unsuspecting victim, threatening her with an ice pick, and robbing her of her valuables.
Unrepresented in court, clad in filthy garments and of no fixed place of abode – police talk for homeless – the boy was a member of one of the several posses who now live on the street and who seem to have come from nowhere and to be going nowhere. Uneducated, unwashed and uncared for, street children live in a catch-as-catch-can world around fast-food restaurants and supermarkets in the central business district by day, outside night clubs and bars in the entertainment circuit at night and sleeping on makeshift cardboard cots on the city’s pavements and parapets.
The children survive by begging, gambling, stealing and working at odd jobs. They are usually victims of sexual molestation by men; bullying; fighting; stealing, and drug use and abuse. Beyond the care of adults, many juveniles are increasingly being seduced into criminal activity by their peers and older boys.
The rise of the street children problem is neither a recent nor isolated occurrence. Urchins emerged as if from nowhere during the economic depression of the 1980s and they have never gone away. Older ones disappear and younger ones appear; they just keep on coming. Most boys must have started out from homes but they have now made the streets – including alleyways, derelict buildings, sidewalks and open spaces – their habitual abode and source of livelihood.
There has never been a census although one official implausibly put the figure of street children at a risible ‘thirty.’ When the numbers of homeless juveniles in all the urban areas – Anna Regina, Georgetown, Linden, New Amsterdam, Parika and Skeldon – are added, however, there might be more than 300. The bands of beggars at the international airport, river stellings and sawmills swell their numbers further.
Former PNC Minister Rabbian Ali-Khan and PPP Ministers Bibi Shadick and Priya Manickchand have all tried to deal with the problem but success has been elusive. Short-term campaigns and operations favoured by officialdom have not had lasting results.
In the 1990s, the administration launched ‘Opera-tion Embrace’, but this eventually petered out. Only in March, the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security launched its ‘Mission Child Protec-tion’ campaign which followed its ‘Mission Miracle’ programme to remove children from the streets. Though initially successful in reuniting some children with their families, these campaigns are insufficient as some children are disinclined to return to homes from which they fled in the first place or simply do not have homes to which they can return.
The Government is still infatuated with the Victorian style ‘big house’ strategy of trying to heap as many boys together in one place, in the style of the former Essequibo Boys’ School at Onderneeming. The Drop-in-Centre in Hadfield Street and the Night Shelter at East La Penitence and earlier failed efforts to establish concentration centres at Mahaica and Sophia are part of this same big house approach.
These might be a good first step in removing boys from the streets and providing them with warm meals, clean clothes and dry beds but are of doubtful benefit in the long term. Well-intended but patchwork efforts have not eradicated the social problem.
At present, responsibility for the correction of juvenile delinquents and protection of street children seems to be shared by four ministries – the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport which administers the New Opportunity Corps for wayward youths which was part of the defunct Guyana National Service; Ministry of Home Affairs which is planning to erect a new detention centre for juveniles; the Ministry of Education’s Schools’ Welfare Department which occasionally ’rounds up’ wrongdoers and ‘wandering’ girls; and the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security which is responsible for the National Probation Service.
Guyana’s growing army of street children needs continuous care services administered by a cadre of compassionate, committed and qualified professionals. There are few such persons in the public service. The four ministers, perhaps, could agree on a common strategy to make best use of their limited resources so as to give these vulnerable boys the best opportunity to enjoy better lives.