May 08 2008 at 12:43PM
The wheels of the truck narrowly miss the small boy crouching in the road at the confluence of Masabalala Yengwa Avenue and (NMR) and Argyle Road in Durban.
He is humming tunelessly and playing with a piece of splintered wood, pretending to be taking part in the A1 Grand Prix.
As the truck driver registers the child, and swerves to avoid him, a girl who looks no older than three is shaking an empty milk carton to elicit money from another car at the busy off-ramp.
On the other side of the four-way stop, a woman with a baby on her hip directs soulful looks at passers-by, hoping they will toss her a few coins out of sympathy for the infant.
‘To give, or not to give, is the conundrum’
Travelling along Argyle Road and other main arterial access points to the city entails running the gamut of an assortment of beggars each day. The problem is particularly acute at peak traffic times, when frustrated motorists do their best either to reach work, or get out of town and head home.
Darting between cars to beg for money is not a risk-free occupation at the best of times. With the advent of ever-younger beggars on the streets, there is a real risk these children will be injured or killed.
Most motorists with any compassion feel torn each time they see beggar children, shoeless and ragged in appearance, appealing for assistance.
To give, or not to give, is the conundrum. Are we helping to keep young people on the street if we "encourage" them by doling out cash, or are we simply being callous when we shake our heads censoriously or pointedly look straight ahead as if we haven’t seen them?
‘Street children are entitled to their basic human rights’
Linda Treadwell, director of the I Care foundation for street children, is emphatic that well-meaning donors can only make a difference to the future of a street child if they decline to give him or her money.
She confirms that there appears to be an increased incidence of babies and toddlers being used as pawns by beggars who are often unrelated to them, but who simply "borrow" the children to elicit sympathy.
"The older children are less attractive magnets for donations, so these people are using the youngest children they can find. It’s a racket, and some young beggars are also intimidated by their peers and older children," she said.
"The small children are often not directly related to those who take them on to the streets, but are instead members of extended families, or the children of friends or neighbours."
When the Daily News photographer tried to get candid shots of children begging on Argyle Road, they invariably raised their T-shirts to cover their faces.
Treadwell explained that the children are aware a stigma adheres to what they are doing.
"Also, some are afraid of being recognised and taken back to the homes they have run away from," she said.
Dispelling the notion that all street children are unprotected waifs dumped on the streets against their will, she added: "Some of the youngsters are quite clever. They get paid a share of the spoils, and can get quite aggressive when they are reprimanded."
The I Care director is passionate about the work the foundation does in rehabilitating street children, and attempting either to return them to a family environment or find alternative shelter and education for them.
"It is no life for a child," she said emphatically.
"They are at great risk on the streets. Recently one of the kids I was working with was stabbed and killed in a fight over glue.
"The highly addictive glue the children are sold by unscrupulous dealers causes irreversible brain damage, and there have been cases of what is termed ‘sudden sniffing death’.
"Children have been run over by cars and killed, and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and Aids are rife."
Tom Hewitt, who has run the Umthombo (Wellness) Project for street children in eThekweni since 1998, works in close conjunction with I Care.
He says that while most archetypal street children have run away from untenable home circumstances, the issue of "borrowing" babies and children for begging is an even more problematic one to tackle.
"The women who bring their own and others’ children on to the streets to beg have been registered for welfare benefits in an attempt to stop their activities, but they come back anyway. We really need to look at finding compassionate, legal solutions."
Hewitt spoke out firmly regarding the controversial removal of street children from eThekwini during major tourism events.
"Round-ups don’t work. Street children are entitled to their basic human rights during the process of rehabilitating them and relocating them to more conducive environments," he said.
"We are here to provide their basic rights, change their behavioural patterns and empower them to make life decisions that will ensure they have a viable future.
"It has been a controversial decade," he continued.
"Durban lacks a really unified city-wide strategy for street children. The bottom line, though, is that it is not a bottomless pit. Together we can devise adequate means to deal with the issue."
His compassion evident, he said: "We have to remember they are children. They’re on our streets for a reason. They come with trauma and we can’t write them off as criminals.
"They are the most vulnerable and marginalised sector of society. They are not our problem, but rather our responsibility. In the run-up to 2010 I hope the provincial department of social development remembers the needs of these children."
I Care is under contract to the eThekwini Municipality to run a "drop-in" centre in the city.
There is at present no reception centre, however, which makes it difficult for outreach workers to find alternative accommodation for street children.
The drop-in centre, at the corner of Victoria Embankment and Stanger street, is manned around the clock and affords a brief respite from the inhospitable city streets for frequently traumatised children.
Umthombo has a street outreach team of 10 people, and runs a mobile health unit for street children. The first of its kind, the unit is fully equipped and manned by trained paramedics and senior nurses.
"This is a real lifeline for the children, because they are not able to access healthcare through the regular channels," Hewitt said.
"Fortunately we (outreach workers) have the luxury of time on our side," he continued.
"We build bonds of trust with the kids over a long period. Most of them are initially very wary of adults."
Hewitt has known some of the street children with whom he works since they were very small.
While he is optimistic regarding the long-term prospects for rehabilitation, and maintains the problem will not spiral out of control as long as there are concerned people who have the children’s best interests at heart, his work often impacts on him in a painful way.
"We have a good track record of getting them off the streets, but the sad thing is that I am ‘outgrowing’ many of them.
"They die," he said quietly.
As a testament to the selfless work done by people like Hewitt, Treadwell and others, 18 staff within their combined organisations are former street children who have kicked addictions, gone back to school and are living
I Care is a non-profit organisation dedicated to finding meaningful and sustainable solutions to the challenge of street children in South Africa. The foundation is funded entirely by corporate and private donations.
If you really care about the plight of street children, your assistance would be gratefully received.
Make your donation to: Nedbank, account number 1648064566, KZN Business Branch, Code 164826.
Find out more about I Care on their website : http://www.icare.co.za