“For the average child, sleeping outdoors is called CAMPING; For a street child, it is called SURVIVING.” UNICEF
All over the world, a great number of children grow up and become adults on the streets of their cities. They sleep on sidewalks unmindful of their environment. They wander in the streets and beg, usually ignored by people passing by. Filthy, starved, and emotionally wounded, these children go through life devoid of hope and optimism for a better tomorrow. They are today’s youth without a childhood, and perhaps, without a future.
The SIDEWALK – Their KINGDOM
The sidewalks are not just home to street children; these sidewalks serve as their sacred territory. On the sidewalks, they earn their income, they meet and mingle with street children friends, they gain experience not just in parking cars but also in the art and science of pick-pocketing, begging and looting the cars they park.
“John Rey,” a 14-year old street child, has been a sidewalk resident for two years. His life consists of a simple routine — sleep outside of McDonald’s at night, earn around P100 daily from parking cars and motorcycles in the daytime. During the day, he smokes and occasionally drinks, usually from the urging of other street children. For John Rey, the streets are a lot better than home. Mom is in Mindanao and dad is in Manila and he doesn’t have an idea if they are ever returning or if they will ever see each other again.
It is tragic and painful to hear John Rey say that he doesn’t care at all if his parents are with him because he has long accepted that his present life is what he needs to focus on if he wishes to survive.
The teenager has been driven by the other street children to infiltrate malls and steal whatever he can but John Rey refuses to comply and has made it clear that he does not wish to engage in anything criminal. It appears that despite his station in life and despite the negative label that the community has given to street children, John Rey still has few of his values intact. In spite of his youth and the indifference building inside of him, he can still assert himself and manage to say NO to what is morally wrong.
John Rey confided that he sometimes thinks 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 (a strong glue prevalent in the Philippines) seeps into his consciousness, such thoughts are easily dismissed from his mind, and in its place, the pungent and intoxicating power of the inhalant takes over.
Inhalants – Their SHIELD
All the street children interviewed 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 by the “cliques” of physically larger and older street children. It appears that for Marvin, acceptance was a big thing and it doesn’t matter what the bigger boys order him to do as long as he can be a member of the group. It is also a way to avoid being harassed, bullied and terrorized by the more experienced street boys. Marvin, who is also a young recruit of the feared “Bloods” gang, has experienced many of the typical street gang antics such as being ordered to steal as well as being the “look-out” when a member of the opposing gang — the Crips — needs to be threatened or eliminated. This 14-year old street child acknowledged to be constantly carrying a knife but has never hurt or killed anyone. Marvin agrees that rugby is also the most effective method not feel hunger, physical and emotional pain or the unbearable longing of having a mother around.
Due to its accessibility and affordability, rugby is a popular inhalant used by street children. Many business establishments selling this product have ordered their salespeople to be cautious in selling this to children and be on guard of people (especially minors) who go to their stores to buy rugby.
With store owners’ vigilance, rugby’s accessibility has significantly diminished, however, an alternative has been found – 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 “malakas ang tama (the best stone or buzz).” When asked why they use these inhalants and what it can do to them, the answer was – “nakakahilo agad,” (immediate dizziness) which instantly leads them either to inertia, to dreamland or to the much sought-after “never-never land.”
For these children who are almost always hungry; who are continuously battling with life; who are endlessly fighting for a tiny share of acceptance from peers; who are incessantly struggling against feelings of loneliness, and are endlessly plagued with daily attacks from other street children as well as the police – rugby and Vulcaseal offer a much-needed refuge from the daily intrusions of street life.
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 take place – once again – on the sidewalks of Philippine cities.
“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 timid but only on the surface. The ‘shyness’ 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 elusive 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 blunt responses was like plugging a square peg in a round hole.
Obviously, street children have trust issues and nobody can blame them. These children feel “betrayed.” While they may not articulate such feelings, deep inside them, they feel that they have been disillusioned by the very people who should have been protecting them – their parents — the ones who either have abandoned them or have pushed them to 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 born into this world if this is the kind of life that I will lead???”
Simply put, these children feel so much betrayal that the only protective mechanism that they have is to stop trusting. It doesn’t matter to them who they are not trusting if 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 be certain that it is OK to trust anyone.
THIS Moment – Their ONLY TIME
The street children who were interviewed didn’t have plans for the future – short or long-term – nor did they have any dreams of unexpected opportunities of any kind. They are so preoccupied with surviving, that they are inclined to “live for the moment.” The “future”, for them, is a far-fetched concept they cannot understand nor have a chance to experience.
“Benjie,” 15 years old, just gave a furtive 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 and 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 dream of a better life and it is apparent that there are talents and capabilities hidden in those restrained expressions and timid countenance, 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 always think of the “present.” Because they must survive; it is imperative for them to busy themselves with whatever is at hand or someone else will get wherever before them and take whatever 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 stranger’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.
Surprisingly, street children 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 bullies or where to get the next round of glue to sniff.
With the manifold battering of life that visits them every day, these street children have an exceedingly simple goal – survive at whatever cost.
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 a lack of concern for a group that has no voice or power? Is it a feeling of guilt because of our inability to do anything to lessen the anguish and the torment that these children 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 miserable backgrounds and heartless parents. Given this, government policies are frequently limited to a legal or enforcement approach which tends to overlook the root causes of the problem.
The root of this problem runs very deep therefore solutions require changes and paradigm shifts on multiple levels in order to address individuals, communities, and the smothering environment that envelops 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 in this problem.
We need to do something about the children who live and wander our streets. Let us start doing something for them and let us begin NOW!
Written by Gemma Minda Iso
Gemma Minda Iso, a freelance writer for over 12 years, has published one book and is about to launch her second. She does project-based in-depth research works for foreign clients, writes a column for a local newspaper and speeches for government officials and private company executives. Currently, she dabbles with her events management start-up and is kept busy with her Toastmasters International-related activities.