SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Thembela always dreamt of one day being a policeman. But for many years, patchy education and an unstable home environment made that dream seem unlikely. Now a resident of the Siyakatala PE night shelter in Korsten, Thembela has returned to school thanks to the help and support of social workers – and his dream suddenly seems within reach once again.
He is one of hundreds of destitute street children in the city who have turned to shelters for help.
And social workers in turn are trying to ensure that these children get the education they so desperately need to become functioning members of society.
Maranatha homeless shelter director Trudi Basson finds that in most interviews with street children they will lie about their schooling.
“They will say they‘ve reached Grade 4, but after educational tests you‘ll find that the child only reached Grade 2 or has been out of school so long that those missed years are a big gap in their schooling.”
Basson said smaller children were often used by bigger ones to earn an income by begging on the streets. This was because the older ones usually could not earn an income themselves.
“They most probably can‘t find work because they are illiterate as well,” Basson said. “You‘ll find that sometimes the little ones are victimised and forced to stand on the street and beg. Some younger children are also on drugs.
“We test them and often find that what they tell you on the street isn‘t always the truth.
“Last year we enrolled children at school. Some stayed at school while others ran away.
“They don‘t see going to school as a solution. After all, why must they go to school if they can get money on the street right now? And, unfortunately, drugs are also available. Going to school is not an instant solution to their problem. It doesn‘t solve poverty at home.”
Basson said 16 children had been home-schooled at the Maranatha shelter before being enrolled at various schools. “People can help by donating children‘s school fees, buying a pair of shoes or paying taxi fares.
“You often find children who don‘t have school shoes do not want to go to school. They are too shy to go to school barefoot.” Instead, some of these children grow up illiterate and are forced to help support their families.
District Alliance for Street Children manager Mlindi Velapi said there was a “disaster” regarding the education of street children in the city. “There is a lack of resources and I feel the government must do more for the street children.”
Some children at shelters might have a better future, but volunteers can also help shape a brighter future.
Basson said educational programmes were offered at Siyakatala. “We try to teach these children basic computer skills with the help of volunteers.”
Some of the children at the shelter feel fortunate to get a meal, bath and have a safe place to sleep as well as learn to read and write again.
Thembela came to Siyakatala in 2006. Now in Grade 9, he has never lived on the streets, but left his dad‘s house in Missionvale for a better option.
“My friends brought me to the shelter,” he said. “My dad was never around and he didn‘t work. There was little food at home and he didn‘t care for me. He would go look for work every day but just didnot find any.”
Thembela was in Grade 8 when he arrived at the shelter, but stopped attending school because it was too far to travel.
Last year, Siyakatala staff members encouraged him to resume his schooling and registered him at David Livingstone High School, Schauderville. He passed Grade 8.
This year, Thembela starts Grade 9 at Livingstone High.
“I‘m happy at the shelter. My dad knows I‘m here,” Thembela said. He did not know who his mother was. His dad had only visited him at the shelter once, early last year. He had not seen him since.
Unlike Thembela, his friend Gabriel, 13, lived on the streets and begged for food and money. Gabriel, from Gelvandale, was 12 when he left his mother‘s home for the streets.
He left home because he believed his mother did not want to look after him. However, she had asked that he stay at the shelter and saw him regularly.
He also said he had been lured to the streets by friends.
Gabriel had only completed Grade 3. With the help of volunteers at the shelter he is taught to read, write and do maths. He likes the educational programmes at the shelter and dreams of “owning a big house and being married and having children”.
Gabriel has older siblings and sometimes visits them at home. “They‘re always happy to see me.”
He still stands a good chance of being accepted at school, unlike Denzil, 18, from Missionvale, who has only completed Grade 6.
The age gap for Denzil to get a primary school education was too big, Basson said. “Some schools don‘t accept people his age at school at that level.”
Denzil left school after his father died. His mother found it difficult to provide for her family. “I used to live on the streets for a few weeks on and off, then my mother would fetch me home. This went on for years.
“I heard from other children that living on the street one got money and food from other people,” Denzil said. Friends had brought him to the shelter last year.
“I would like to finish school and be a traffic officer some day,” Denzil said.
He said living on the streets was “sometimes okay, but then there were times when I was sad and lonely”.
Denzil, who can read and write English and Afrikaans, said while living at the centre he had learnt much more from the educational programmes.
“I‘ve learnt how to budget money as well. I dream of earning a good living and giving my mother a good life someday.”