How a children's shelter rescued street boys after stresses of Covid-19

A street boy takes a nap

A street boy takes a nap at a Nyeri Post office in April 26, 2020. With a curfew in force as the government tried to curb the spread of Coronavirus, street families are led a tough time trying to cope with the unprecedented situation.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Covid-19 came to steal, kill and destroy, some have said. But while the whole nation was focused on masking up, keeping social distance and getting vaccinated, boys were running away from home, while some adult men were being chased out.

Two years later, the young boys aged between nine and 19 are still running, this time because of poverty, which drew them out of the safety of their parents’ homes at the height of the pandemic.

Daisy Odiek, a lawyer and a co-founder of Action for Children in Conflict Shelter, explains that the Covid-19 period brought her shelter together with other shelters under a network to coordinate the Covid-19 response, where they would rescue children from the streets and from the jaws of violence.

“We have two shelters. One is a drop-in centre in the middle of Thika town with short term accommodation, and you can only sleep there for a night. You get a plate of food, and you can shower and do laundry. Most of the people there are youth and working children who go to school but live and work in the streets in the evenings. The second is the rescue centre in rural Kiambu, where they stay for a longer period of time,” she says.

“Aged between13 and 17, their work includes carrying luggage, cooking chapati and mandazi before going to school. This is better because it does not interfere with their right to play or right to education and leisure. We welcome them to come after school or during the weekends so that we teach them about their rights to prevent exploitation from those who give them casual jobs,” she says.

“Adult men taken into the rescue Centre were those who were shown the door by their hungry, angry and frustrated wives, who told them not to go back home unless they had money. With no other skills of survival, we housed them for a week and trained them on ways of making money,” she adds.

Between 2020 and 2022, they have rescued more than 200 street connected boys aged between nine and 17, and other people running away from home.

Most of them, she explains, would run away from home due to poverty, and conflict between the parents, which bordered on domestic violence and alcoholism. In 2022 alone, her shelter rescued 132.

The drop-in centre attends to 100 children and more, but can only accommodate 85. We have had to employ an elderly woman to cook for them and make sure their belongings are well taken care of.

Because the drop-in Centre serves both genders, we refer the women and girls to our partner organisations that are part of the National Shelters Network.

Those that were unable to get accommodation would receive Covid-19 cushioning packages, while the young ones received schooling at the rescue centre,” says Odiek.

Upon arrival at the drop-in centre, children who are rescued are interviewed by social workers, who then begin to trace the family members for re-integration.

“While interviewing them at the drop-in centre, we first consider their willingness to be reintegrated. We rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate. You need to be able to be reintegrated, so we will ask you questions about your family, including where they live and how they are doing. We usually prefer reintegrating them upcountry because if you leave them in town, they may resort to their old ways to get by,” says Odiek.

“Upon finding the family, we will invite them to visit their relative at the rescue centre. A social worker also visits the family with the child before the child is completely released to them. This takes a period of between three weeks and six months. They are then accountable to their relatives and the village chief. We also hold parent days where the parents come and do tasks with their children. Usually, we apportion each child a piece of land to till and grow vegetables, so we show the parent what the child has been doing,” she adds.

“We also re-socialise these victims, who are often defensive and resistant to help. We make sure they understand that they have a supportive environment and that we are here to help. This is because the men have been socialised to cater for everything,” adds Odiek. 

Children with no families, and those whose families are hesitant to take them back are kept in rotation, and are mainly enrolled into boarding schools to continue with their education.

When schools close, they retreat to the rescue centre, where they learn to cook, sew, farm and do beadwork.

“I deal with both men and women, but men’s rights are most times suppressed compared to women. A man will be deprived the right to access his children especially upon separation, requiring us to go to court in extreme cases. However, being a family-oriented institution, we try to mediate. We have also had cases of emotional violence where spouses carry all belongings and children and leave, without the knowledge of their partners. We dealt with a number of cases during the pandemic, which were mostly attributed to lack of money, infidelity and not having understanding partners,” says Odiek.

She explains that the main challenges that they experience are lack of funding and lack of framework for operating shelters. Funding is too little to go around for everybody, yet running a centre of 85 people is hard.

Human resources are also lacking. Besides, it is difficult to get help from the government because without a committal order that you can only obtain from the court, you cannot rescue a child. The lack of an operating framework also poses a risk as a rogue person can set up and run a shelter.

The National Shelters Network, comprising three members, is run by a secretariat hosted by the Centre for Domestic Training and Development, which was formed during the pandemic as part of the Covid-19 response, to provide shelter and prevent violence against women and children.

So far, it has coordinated more than 50 referrals during the Covid-19 period.

By creating a national shelters WhatsApp group, the team shared information related to matters GBV, providing rescue and health services and placement of victims in safe spaces.

BMJ Open, in its article titled Gendered Economic, Social and Health Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Mitigation Policies in Kenya: Evidence From A Prospective Cohort Survey In Nairobi Informal Settlements, noted that Covid-19 affected both men and women, who were more likely to skip meals if they lost employment. This was more likely to be reported by married or cohabiting couples.

“In models stratified by gender, men who had completely lost their income due to Covid-19 were 14 percentage points more likely to report that they experienced increased tension in the household while this was not significant among women. Our findings also indicate that increased food insecurity might be associated with increased risk of violence,” says BMJ.

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