How we ended up on the streets of Nairobi, homeless and hapless
It has been three years on the streets for Naomi* since she escaped a near-death union. Her facial scars are a testament to years of emotional and physical violence at the hands of her abusive partner.
The mother of one’s decision to brave the cold pavements of Nairobi was made not after a mere scuffle but as a response to a situation where the odds were stacked against her.
For her, the harsh reality of being homeless doesn’t hold a candle to the abuse she endured while living under the same roof with her spouse.
“He would have killed me had I not run away,” Naomi recollects.
Before moving in with her husband, she worked as a waitress in a restaurant in Kangemi. However, she had to quit the job after frequent accusations of infidelity. When she became fully dependent on him for finances, his physical attacks became more frequent and vicious.
“He would come back home drunk and start beating me up for no reason,” she says amid tears.
“Some neighbours would try to stop him but he told them not to interfere in our marital affairs.”
The last straw for the young mother was when her abusive husband almost hurt their one-year-old son.
“He came back home drunk as usual and switched off the lights before battering me. I pleaded with him that he was going to hurt the child, but he just would not stop,” says Naomi.
“He only left me alone after a number of neighbours forcefully removed him from our house.”
That was the day Naomi and her child abandoned their home for the streets. She explains that after that ordeal, she tried to secure a job but had no luck as it was during the thick of the Covid-19 crisis.
At the onset of the coronavirus in 2020, the government introduced a number of measures to curb its spread. One of them was the closure of entertainment joints such as the one Naomi had been working at.
Not too far away from where Naomi has set up a makeshift home sits Ruth*, a mother of three who also fled her matrimonial home because of domestic violence.
“I could not go back to my parents because I'm an orphan. There is no one there for me. After giving birth to my third child, my husband almost killed me when he attacked me with a broken bottle. That is when I decided to flee,” she says.
Theirs is an ordeal that many other women undergo. Stephen Nzusa—a lawyer and human rights defender, who has been working with street families for more than a decade—says sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is one of the leading causes of homelessness.
“Most survivors do not want to go back to their homes because the perpetrators live there. They feel like they will be taken advantage of over and over again, so they find safety on the streets,” he says.
According to the 2019 Census, over 20,000 Kenyans are homeless, with 2,348 of them being women and girls. Nairobi leads with the highest number of homeless women (679).
In 2021, Human Rights Watch released a report, I Had Nowhere to Go: Violence Against Women and Girls During the Covid-19 Pandemic in Kenya, which states that most women who underwent SGBV at the height of the pandemic had no place to turn to for help. Further, there were few government-run safe shelters, most of which were under-resourced and understaffed.
In response to the study, the Ministry of Gender put out a statement that the National Government Affirmative Action Fund (Ngaaf) had established eight shelters and that they were working with over 52 safe spaces run by civil society to shelter SGBV survivors.
However, Naomi and Ruth say they were not aware of any government-run safe houses. When Naomi reported her husband at a police station, the officers dismissed her concerns as “marital affairs”. This is the reason private actors such as ‘Usikimye’ have taken to addressing the huge gap in SGBV response by providing safe shelters.
“We have so far housed over 400 women and their children. We do this to enable survivors of SGBV to get back on their feet and reintegrate into society. If we don’t, most of the women would either be stuck in abusive marriages or end up on the streets,” says Njeri Migwi, the founder of Usikimye.
Even so, she says that it has been an uphill task as their financial capability is limited.
“I would like the government, through the National Government Affirmative Action Fund, to support us with grants to help us run the facilities. They should also increase the number of their own safe houses because this is a significant gap in SGBV response,” Ms Migwi adds.
In an interview with the Nation, Dr Linah Jebii, the outgoing Chief Administrative Secretary at the Ministry of Gender, admitted that the government is running few safe houses.
“We also have a problem with the sustainability of these safe spaces. We need to ensure they are well-resourced with staff and security,” she said.
“Some representatives like Esther Passaris (Nairobi), Janet Ongera (former Kisii woman rep) and Kawira Mwangaza (was Meru woman rep before becoming governor) have used the money to set up safe houses for survivors. However, this is usually at their own discretion, they are not mandated to do so.”
She appealed to the government to budget for safe houses and work with the counties in line with the National Policy on Prevention of and Response to GBV to increase well-resourced safe houses.
Prior to her appointment to the CAS position, Dr Jebii chaired the Street Families Rehabilitation Trust Fund. She said most survivors on the streets are unable to go back to their families because most of their male relatives are not welcoming.
“There needs to be a shift in our cultural beliefs so that when women hit a dead end in marriage, they can always go back home. We should fully implement Article 27 of the Constitution, which provides that women have the right to equal opportunities as men, including being allocated land they can settle on when things go south.”
Meanwhile, without adequate measures, most SGBV survivors, such as Ruth and Naomi, will continue to take refuge on the cold streets.