A tale of destitution on the city streets

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Steven Klukowski and Alvine Kapitako

Windhoek-As people go about their daily business on a busy weekday, in the central business district of Windhoek a story of empathy, guilt and remorse is unfolding.

This is the tragic story of a father and son who due to unforeseen circumstances are deprived of their constitutional right to education, as well as basic needs, such as access to health, nutrition and proper shelter.

Narrating their ordeal of hardship and agony to New Era was 29-year old Gavin Gariseb and his 14-year-old son, Bennie. The wheel of fortune has always turned its back on them, it seemed. “I grew up in the South, but due to the poor living conditions I moved with my mother to Windhoek in 2003 in search of a better life,” Gariseb said.

He went to school but dropped out in Grade 6 after his mother died. Gariseb moved out of his family home where poverty, deprivation and rejection by society and his peers were the order of the day.

Living on the streets is not an easy road to walk, he says with sorrowful eyes. “We are a group of homeless people who sleep in unsafe, open spaces with only worn cardboard boxes to protect us against the cold, rain and wind,” Gariseb says.

To make a living they have to find means of survival. “I assist food vendors under the bridge with little tasks in order to get food or – if lucky – a few dollars as a means of living,” Gariseb explained.

His biggest wish in life is to get some type of training and to acquire skills that would enable him to put bread on the table for his loved ones. With tears in his eyes, Gariseb said he recently also lost his father.

Lately Bennie followed in his father’s footsteps when he also became a street kid. A barefooted Bennie, clothed in torn long green trousers with a relatively matching jersey, introduces himself to New Era. “I walked away from a life of poverty and abuse,” he says.

Ironically, he prefers to stay on the streets instead of going back to the place he once called home. “At least here I get hand-outs and left-over food from people who feel sorry for me, whilst my father protects me from being attacked,” he adds.

When asked about his level of education, Bennie responded: “I never in my life went to school, as there was no means to provide for my education.” Like his father, Bennie’s place of rest at night is a makeshift shelter, and oftentimes they are subjected to harsh weather conditions.

According to 2015 statistics from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, there are over 500 homeless people living in Windhoek alone.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare has a centre for destitute children in Grysblock (Katutura). The afterschool centre where street children can overnight was born out of the realisation that there are a growing number of children living on the streets of Windhoek, as New Era reported extensively in September last year.

The centre can accommodate up to 500 children at a time, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare.

Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare spokesperson Charlie Matengu last year told New Era that the ministry regularly collects children who live on the streets and takes them to the centre, where the ministry arranges events for them, such as sports activities, doing their hair, offering manicures, pedicures, and counseling, amongst others. However, he noted, some street children prefer to take a shower, eat and leave.

“For school-age children we place them at the children’s shelter facility, which accommodates a lot of children. For those who have passed the school-going age we liaise with the National Youth Service for them to be included in the national youth training programme,” Matengu was quoted.

He noted the main challenge is that some children do not want to go to school, while others soon return to the streets when put in the shelter. “Even when integrated with family they go on the streets. Once on the streets, they get accustomed to a ‘no-rule’ life and when integrated with family they can’t keep up and so run back to the streets,” he said.

Clinical psychologist Dr Shaun Whittaker told New Era it is worrying to observe that there is a noticeable increase of people living on the streets, especially children.

“You see children on the streets of Windhoek, especially on street corners begging for money and food and they are clearly not going to school. This must be traumatic for them. Can you imagine sleeping in the open every day with no blankets?” Whittaker asked.

He added that street kids often have weak bodies, which can be an indicator that they do not enjoy regular and nutritious meals. “They are also in dangers of attacks,” he added. Further, Whittaker said some people living on the streets suffer from mental health disorders “and they shouldn’t be living on the streets.”

Whittaker believes that one way to holistically address the problem is to have decent shelters set up where people are treated with dignity and where the conditions are appealing for people to live. “If there are good conditions then they will gladly come off the streets,” he argued.

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