COVID-19 on the Streets

24 March 2020

 

"For how long do you think the situation is going for? If the government announces curfew or total lock down, how will we survive?"  Street-connected young person supported by Glad’s House, Mombasa, Kenya

Isolation is nothing new for a child who relies on the street for their survival and lives every day disconnected from their community, without the support of a trusted adult. As the global COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, and we all adapt to being more isolated than we were, street-connected children need our help more than ever to stay safe, access vital services and feel a sense of belonging in their community – even if the community is in lockdown.

StreetInvest and our partners are doing all we can to continue to respond to the needs of children and young people who have no one to turn to – and to ensure that as this public health crisis unfolds, they are afforded the same protection as other children.

As the situation worldwide continues to worsen, StreetInvest has been working closely with our Regional Coordinating Partners (RCPs) and the networks they support through the Global Alliance for Street Work. We are quickly learning how the virus is spreading in the countries where we work, how new governmental measures to control it are impacting on street-connected children and Street Work and developing strategies to respond safely. Glad’s House in Kenya, MFCS in Ghana, CINI in India and project partner CoDWelA in Sierra Leone are sharing news, learning and strategies daily from the street.

Our focus is now on:

  1. Continuity of support: Finding a way to continue to keep children safe, able to access services and feeling belonging in their communities through Street Work, including distributing both information and hygiene supplies such as soap
  2. Advocacy: Doing all we can to ensure that government responses to COVID-19 take street-connected children, and the realities of their lives, into account, and that protective measures work for them too
  3. Protecting staff and organisations: Ensuring that staff are provided with accurate information and equipment to keep themselves safe and that organisations are supported to review working practices where necessary.

News from the Street: how are street children being affected?

Lack of vital services

“Currently many of our network members are cancelling street work programmes and this… creates a vacuum”  Tijani Mahmoud, MFCS, Kumasi, Ghana

Little access to food:

Like in the UK, StreetInvest partners report that, building-based services and support are now closed or closing across their cities, including schools, drop-in centres, feeding centres and other vital services for street-connected children and their families. Street-based support is also being reduced or removed altogether, with usually small, volunteer-reliant organisations fearful of jeopardising their or the children’s safety, but without the resources to adapt quickly to new ways of reaching vulnerable communities. The withdrawal of food programmes on which the street communities rely, such as in Mombasa where one local business previously offered lunch and dinner has ceased operations without warning, leaves children’s most basic need for food unfulfilled.

Poor healthcare:

Even before the pandemic, stigma and discrimination meant that most street-connected children were unable to access vital healthcare, and a lack of legal identity documentation continues to be a barrier to accessing universal services. As COVID-19 takes hold in street populations – something all but inevitable – street-connected children will be hit hard. They are much more likely to be immunocompromised due to underlying health conditions. In Mombasa, respiratory conditions related to solvent use are common, meaning those who rely on inhalants such as glue to survive, stay warm or ward off hunger are particularly vulnerable to complications should they be infected with the virus.

Misinformation and fear

“The situation here is crazy. The streets are empty, the children know about COVID-19 but again they are being surrounded by some myths.” Liz Achola, Glad’s House, Mombasa, Kenya

Without access to accurate, up-to-date and child-friendly information about the virus, how to keep themselves safe, and what new measures are being taken by authorities, children are susceptible to rumour, ‘fake news’ and gossip on the street, and through mobile phones and social media. As a result, they are not able to best protect themselves or others during the pandemic. Where curfews and restrictions on movement are being introduced, such as in India where curfews are now in place 7am-9pm, children are not aware of the new regulations, making them the target of police enforcing such measures.

“[There is a need to] …develop a posters, leaflets and even visible banners with emergency lines to be called and distributed widely to areas where the children are. This can serve a good purpose in the absence of street workers on the streets... currently the children are not having adequate information on what is going on.” Tijani Mahmoud, MFCS, Kumasi, Ghana

CINI staff report that Street Champions (street-connected children trained as advocates and peer researchers) from the streets of Kolkata are experiencing a range of emotional and social challenges. While Street Workers visited them to impart accurate information about being safe, the children expressed their panic because there is so much spread of other misinformation – as a result they do not know what to believe or what guidance to follow.

 

Opportunities to make money to survive have all but disappeared

 “Those who survive by child labour are beginning to feel hunger pangs. Business is failing, children are hungry on the streets. Any restriction in movement will paralyse them as their survival depends on movement.” Alfred Kargbo, Director of CoDWelA, Sierra Leone

Many children and young people in street situations rely on informal and casual labour, moveable businesses and begging to survive, all dependent upon the wider formal and informal economy and community. With fewer and fewer people out and about and shops, markets and businesses closing, income generation opportunities such as watching over parked cars, carrying goods in the market, selling small items or other petty trade are disappearing, and empty streets make begging for money impossible.

“Some young people who have been in independent living and doing small businesses for survival have started going back to streets for begging, unknowingly the street is more tough. One case is of a young mother whom we supported since 2019, as we spoke to her, she is considering coming back to the street and survive through begging until things are back to normal.” Liz, Glad’s House, Mombasa, Kenya

In Mombasa, many children supported by Glad’s House report making plans to return to their family homes and villages now that the city cannot support them, running the risk of not only transporting the virus from urban to remote rural communities, but also removing young people from their support network on the street and in some cases returning to the very issues at home that led them to the streets of Mombasa, such as domestic violence and poverty.

 

Social distancing and good hygiene are almost impossible

“How do we stay safe from a virus outbreak when we live on the pavements? Is it even possible?” Street-connected child in Kolkata, supported by CINI

For children and young people who live, work or otherwise spend a lot of time on the streets, social distancing is not as simple as ‘staying home’. For many street-connected children who do have a family home, it may not be a safe place for them, with family violence, lack of space, food, light or shelter at home being common reasons that children move to the street in the first place.

Children and families living full time on the street face challenges in isolating themselves from others and maintaining safe distance and good hygiene, and they are particularly vulnerable to being moved on or rounded up by authorities. In Kolkata, street-connected children and their families are reporting a threefold increase in the number of forced evictions and round ups. The introduction of curfews, restrictions on movement and penalties to enforce social distancing will disproportionately impact on street-connected children who may have nowhere else to go.

In Mombasa’s central business district, some handwashing points are being installed but there is a fear they will be overwhelmed, with many thousands of people relying on them.

 

Street Work finds a way: how we are responding

“For now there is no group work except one to one contact with children with social distancing. The kids need preventive kits to protect themselves. The children do not congregate at their meeting points for fear of the police. We need to be supported to mount up advocacy and appeals for the children before it is too late.” Alfred, CoDWelA, Sierra Leone

Street Work by its nature has the benefit of taking place for the most part outside. Whilst the situation and government advice in each country changes quickly, as of Monday 23rd March StreetInvest and its partners agree that street-based support should continue to take place in some form, to maintain the presence of a trusted adult in the lives of children, something more important now than ever before.

Street Work is being delivered at the recommend safe distance, following a series of new precautions to maintain social distance and good hygiene. This includes the suspension of group support, and all Street Workers, if well, now interact with children only on a one-to-one or two-to-one basis and at a distance of at least 2 metres, with no touching. Some Street Workers are wearing masks. All Street Workers are washing their hands regularly or using hand sanitiser – but it’s in very short supply.

Education on good hygiene practice, handwashing and social distancing and informing children about new government measures has become part of every interaction on the street. Street Workers now play a role in distributing vital supplies such as soap and installing hygiene facilities in the community.

Many planned activities are on hold, including street soccer in Mombasa, the Street Champion training programme in Kumasi, and participatory health research in Kolkata, both for reasons of safety and compliance with new regulations, and as Street Work resources are redirected to COVID-19 response.

 “Already the ones in the street are adapting to avoiding contacts as well, and also empowering children on using the available soap, but not necessarily sanitizers. The Street Workers were hoping to meet the [Government] Department personnel today and know how else we can cooperate. Our outreach team has been on the streets for less hours in doing Street Work to make sure the children and young people have the right information and receive any support. So far we have supported [the community] putting some hand washing points in Maboxini (slum), we hope they will be useful. We will review how else we work next week in ensuring that they get most support and we keep ourselves safe as well.” – Liz, Glad’s House, Mombasa, Kenya

In Ghana, MFCS have taken all staff through detailed information about the virus to ensure they are best equipped to stay safe and support children on the street. They have introduced new cleaning and disinfection routines for the office to minimise the possibility of spreading the virus amongst the team or to the street.

CINI’s Street Workers in Kolkata who work within their own communities have witnessed a sense of panic and an atmosphere of fear among children living in crowded and overpopulated spaces due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and with Street Champions they are playing a crucial role in sharing accurate information and offering reassurance.  

 

What happens next?

The scale of the Coronavirus crisis in Europe is devastating, even with a functioning, funded health care system. In so many countries around the world, including most of those where StreetInvest’s partners work, this simply is not the case. Governments in East and West Africa, and India, are for the most part introducing stricter measures quicker to try and contain the virus. But street-connected children, young people and their families who live on the streets or depend on the streets for their survival are increasingly being seen as a population to remove as quickly as possible rather than a population to get hygienic services to. The spread of misinformation is rife, panic is growing and communities are approaching absolute devastation.

 “In all these types of emergencies, the poorest and most vulnerable people suffer disproportionately. The appropriate and timely management of these risks requires effective personal capacity enhancement and promotion of personal and community-based resilience for the fight against the health emergency.” Swati Chakraborty, Assistant Director, CINI-Kolkata Unit.

We are working with government departments to support state responses to protect street-connected children through this unprecedented time and ensure that they stay safe, including by providing data and advising on safe, rights-respecting ways to protect street communities.

With fundraising activities and ongoing projects widely suspended, organisations supporting the most marginalised children are facing the biggest ever threat to their survival, especially small grassroots organisations who operate on minimum resources. If they disappear, or cannot adapt to the ‘new normal’, many thousands of children will be facing this crisis completely alone.

We are determined to continue to support street children at the time when they need it most. If we don’t, no one will.

Siân Wynne

Director of Programmes

Siân brings 10 years' experience of programme management, network building and partner development in the UK, Asia, Africa and Latin America at both grassroots and international levels.

After a 5-year career in the UK mental health sector, Siân relocated to Kampala, Uganda in 2013, working in women's and children's rights NGOs before returning to the UK to complete a Masters in Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London in 2015.

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