Adjacent to the fence around the open-air market in Isiolo town are several single-room timber houses where Sakina Salim has been living for the past two years.
Each of the 15 rooms, measuring six feet by 12 feet, has four makeshift beds and accommodates at least six people, with some required to share beds while others sleep on the floor.
The rooms were abandoned by a group of women traders who used to operate from the place where the open air market was to be located. They left the rooms after they were allowed to operate from the adjacent land where the open air market is located.
The 20-year-old mother of one, an orphan, never thought she would ever find herself in the streets but says she has become accustomed to the environment. But she still hopes things will get better sooner or later.
Her guardians were unable to pay her school fees, forcing her to drop out in Form Three. Three years later, she was thrown out of the house when she became pregnant.
“They (guardians) used to fight and the environment was hostile for me. They threw me out after I became pregnant for a man who went into hiding, leaving me stranded,” Sakina recalls.
With no refuge, the 20-year-old resorted to the streets.
Men take advantage
But she remains cagey on how and where she delivered her daughter, who is one year and three months old, but she says she has occasionally been taken advantage of by men, without divulging details.
We find her leaving the house to look for casual jobs with her son strapped on her back.
“I wash clothes and utensils for people for as little as Sh100 to provide for my family. I am not ashamed because it’s better than stealing and engaging in prostitution,” she says.
“My son gives me the motivation to work hard and face the challenges instead of running away.”
Eighteen-year-old Catherine Kathambi’s case is not different.
She has lived in the streets for five years and does not know the whereabouts of her two-year-old son’s father, who vanished after making her pregnant.
“I have often contemplated suicide because no help is forthcoming and I have no one to seek help from or go to,” she says, adding that she went to live in the streets after their land in Kulamawe was grabbed when her parents died.
Some of the desperate street families engage in odd jobs including selling drugs and prostitution to earn a living, with others resorting to drugs and alcohol abuse to beat depression.
Mr Charles Lepeto (not his real name), 28, says desperation and lack of an income pushes them into crime.
“If there are no jobs, what will we eat?” Mr Lepeto posed.
The street families have been blamed for burglaries in Isiolo, though they say the accusations were meant to tarnish their name and pave the way for their expulsion from the area.
In a recent interview with Nation.Africa, they decried neglect by local elected leaders and the county government, saying their grievances have not been addressed.
They said food is hard to find and they are not considered when the county and national governments distribute relief food, issue identity cards and when recruiting for Kazi Mtaani.
“Young families in the streets have children to take care of and because there are no opportunities to earn money, some get into the drug business,” Nicholas Kimathi says.
In the streets for 20 years
Mr Ones Lokai, who has lived in the streets for 20 years, says elected leaders are not concerned about their well-being, especially providing food and empowering them to get out of the streets.
“We have a lot of talented youth who only need to be nurtured to engage in sports, comedy and even music so that they can stay away from drugs but the leaders are not concerned,” the 27-year-old man says.
Stephen Kagwiria, 30, said street families are not being considered for casual jobs by local contractors, including loading and unloading of building materials, and travellers do not ask them to carry their luggage.
The environment they live in, he says, puts them at high risk of contracting waterborne diseases because they lack clean water.
“It is sad that a few drug addicts who have already reformed have no way of earning money to shun drugs, forcing many to return to their old life,” Alex Mutua says.
Leila Laban, a 24-year-old mother of three whose husband is in jail, is among the reformed drug addicts at high risk of returning to drug abuse.
No healthcare services
She says access to healthcare is a challenge for them and that they only rely on prayers when they become sick.
“I had a skin disease but I have been given some drugs,” she said during a recent medical camp organised by Pepo la Tumaini Jangwani in Isiolo town.
The street families have appealed to local leaders to enrol them at local polytechnics and vocational training centres so they can acquire the skills to start their own businesses and get jobs.
A majority of those who spoke to Nation.Africa threatened not to participate in next year’s elections, saying they are tired of empty promises from local politicians.
Pepo la Tumaini Jangwani founder Khadija Omar urged the county government to help the families. She said they should not be dismissed as drunks and thieves.
“They steal because they have no other options. Give them IDs so that they can apply for jobs and empower them so that they can get out of the streets, not castigating them,” Ms Omar says.
Pepo la Tumaini Jangwani conducts outreach programmes targeting the vulnerable in society, including the elderly, orphans and street families.