For street kids, simple things like a bed, a meal or someone to protect and look after them are luxuries not found on the street or in great supply in the homes they fled.
Ons Plek in Cape Town, South Africa, offers some of those children living on the streets basic lodging, meals and clothes. More than that, it prepares 150 6- to18-year-old girls and their families for reunification every year.
The girls leave home because of problems with family dynamics, child abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment. Many come from outside Cape Town and eventually find their way to the city. Some come to Ons Plek via social workers or police. Others just show up at the door.
They are tough when they arrive after months or years of fending for themselves against hunger, police, violence and predators. But they are children. As one 14-year-old wrote, “What is nice is that at night when you go to sleep there are people to look after you. At home sometimes nobody comes home to look after me. Here, there is always somebody to look after us, all the time.”
Ons Plek, which means a place for us in Afrikaans, is the only intake shelter for girls in Cape Town. It focuses on the girls’ education. Upon arrival an educational assessment is performed. The girls have huge gaps in their learning, so each numeracy and literacy lesson is tailored to each girl’s needs. The assessments determine whether to return the girl to her former school or find other educational resources for her in the community.
Social work is also a high priority.
“Right away we try to contact everyone who has had contact with the girl,” said Yumna Van Der Schyff, unit manager. “Often the first story that she tells us is not the accurate story. None of the girls want other people in the house to know their story, but, somehow, everyone knows their stories. And, sometimes, they might embellish them.
“We validate the story with her family, schools, churches, anyone we can find,” Ms. Van Der Schyff said. “If the child tells us where she comes from, schools become a good source of information. We look for parents or caregivers so that we can see what the circumstances are like. We have to find out if serious abuse really occurred or if this is a girl who felt like running away to Cape Town for a bit.”
Counseling follows the assessments, as the girls cannot cope with schoolwork if psycho/social issues are not addressed.
The transition from street to the program is rocky. Many view Ons Plek as a lot of fun for a few days. They have new friends, regular meals and a bed. But most run away three or four times before they solidly commit to the program.
It is difficult for them to adjust to the structure the program imposes. But the staff makes it clear that no girl will be left out on the street. When she is ready to accept the service, it will be there for her. Most return when they are ready, although in certain circumstances the staff may ask community social workers or the police to look for the girl.
Residents do all of the housekeeping of the facility, which is furnished with used items.
The program encourages the reintegration of the girl with her family and the larger society. They are primarily speakers of Xhosa and Afrikaans, but they are strongly encouraged to use English. It is the staff’s one common language, and it increases the opportunities available to the girls in South Africa and the world.
Opened in 1988, the program has two houses. The intake shelter, Ons Plek, is in Cape Town’s central business district. All girls enter the program through this facility, where they can remain for up to one year. If a long-term placement is appropriate, she moves to the second stage shelter, Siviwe, Xhosa for God has heard us, where she can focus more intensely on building her life.
Siviwe is located in Woodstock, a residential area. The girls attend secondary school and remain for four months to five years. They can stay for up to two years after completing their studies, but they must work and pay rent.
There is no sign identifying Siviwe as a home for girls. It looks like any other house on the block.
“The girls don’t tell others where they live,” Ms. Van Der Schyff said. “They want to be accepted by their classmates. Whether their teachers know depends on how the admission process works in school. If the principal is processing the application, the information about the girl may remain in the office. Eventually, the teacher finds out as our educator visits the school. We don’t give specifics of a child’s background unless there is a specific issue.
“We tell the girls that throughout your life you are going to meet people who have questions. You have a story. Probably half of the public is judgmental about the girls and the other half is empathetic.”
Each of the facilities has 16 beds and can be expanded to a capacity of 20 with some girls sleeping on mattresses.
“While there are many more boys living on the streets, the number of girls on the streets is increasing,” said Pam Johnson, program director. “It’s due to their drug use, especially crystal meth and some alcohol. Many of these girls come from caring families, but the drugs have gotten them in trouble.”
At times there is a waiting list, but this affects only girls who are living with their families while intake procedures are occurring. If a child walks in from the street, “We accept her and deal with it,” Ms. Van Der Schyff said. The mattresses are brought out of the storage area and placed on the floor.
Ons Plek emphasizes reuniting the girl with her family. Ninety percent return to their families. Staff works with the families to ensure problems that caused the girls to flee do not recur. When a child’s immediate family can’t be found or is unwilling to work with the program, she joins her extended family, often her grandmother. The primary criterion is the level of support that the caregiver can offer.
The strength of the two-pronged goal of reuniting the girl with her family and education is shown in the story of Alfonsine Tshibula, who was 11 when her parents deserted her. After nine months on the street, she came to Ons Plek and lived there for five years. Today, she’s 17, lives with her sister and her family, and is studying to become an accountant.
“For me, happiness will be having a job,” she said. “I want to be able to sustain myself before I have a family. I never dreamed that I would have these plans or hopes.
“I’ve seen people really suffer on the outside, and I’ve seen children come here. I’ve seen Ons Plek give them hope. I never imagined that I would have the hope that I do today.”
Richard Lord is a photojournalist based in Ivy, Va.