Street Work: Making the Street Safer during Covid-19

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Street Work: Making the Street Safer during Covid-19 8th April 2020: Launching our International Day for Street Children campaign

Safe Spaces for Children

The theme for this year’s International Day for Street Children is ‘Safe Spaces for Street Children’. That means safe spaces where street-connected children can take refuge and seek support – and in the time of Covid-19, self-isolate safely in a way that respects their rights and meets their basic needs. But it also means making the street a safer space. We know that as long as poverty and inequality exist, some children will have to rely on the street for their life, survival and development. So too during Covid-19, as governments take steps to provide alternative accommodation for children who live on the street full time, there will still be some children, and families, who need to be supported on the street.

This has become apparent as the situation has worsened across the cities where StreetInvest works, with Street Workers reaching children who would otherwise be without support during this crisis. You’ll read below how Street Work teams in Mombasa, Kumasi, Kolkata and Waterloo, Sierra Leone are doubling as health educators, food servers, medicine distributors, water tank installers, and handwashing experts. All of these essential services are possible thanks to the relationship of trust that Street Workers have established with street-connected children and communities. We know that street-connected children may, quite rightly, be wary of adult intervention in their lives, having been let down time and again by adults who were supposed to protect them. Why would the coronavirus crisis be any different? The consistent presence of adults who children know and trust is proving instrumental not just to their safety, but their survival.

Street Workers are also acting as advisors to government, as liaison between street-connected children and community leaders and as researchers gathering vital information about how children on the street are being impacted by coronavirus. For a Street Work organisation to be effective, it must as inform and influence those in power who are making decisions which affect street-connected children. This is now happening with a newfound urgency, with Street Work teams simultaneously coordinating their own emergency responses – so that children can eat, find shelter, access medicine – whilst making sure that government measures to curb Covid-19 really are working in street-connected children’s best interests.

How Street Workers are making the streets safer 

Staying on the street: engaging government

The greatest challenge for Street Workers now is having access to the street so that they can continue to operate. Lockdowns, curfews and limited hours when people are permitted to visit markets other shopping areas mean the window of opportunity to reach children on the street is shrinking – or disappearing altogether.  

StreetInvest has developed Street Work guidance which includes key advocacy messages and a template letter to duty bearers, to help Street Work organisations engage governments in collaborative efforts to keep street children safe – including by permitting Street Work to continue. The letter has already been used to engage governments in Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa – and StreetInvest’s guidance has been distributed to around 200 organisations around the world who are united in their efforts to protect street-connected children at this time.

In Mombasa, after writing to government agencies to insist they collaborate with Street Workers to protect street and slum communities, Glad’s House were invited by the Department of Youth, Gender and Sports of the County Government to lead a special team of street workers dedicated to supporting street-connected children and families during Covid-19. The team comprises 22 Street Workers, including 12 from Glad’s House and 8 from the government’s social work workforce, plus some from other NGOs, each issued with a permit to work on the street during lockdown.

“Suddenly everyone is realising how important data is. We just did a census in Kenya, but believe me, we cannot access that data hence the challenge of distributing these essentials.”

Mombasa County official

Glad’s House undertook a rapid survey of children and families living in and around Maboxini slum, providing this data to government and making direct recommendations for how to protect them.

MFCS, StreetInvest’s partner in Kumasi, Ghana, have been working closely with the Municipal Officer for the Department of Social Welfare, who they escorted on a visit to the streets. Now having a better understanding f where the most disadvantaged children are and how they need supporting, she is continuing to work with MFCS to push for the right responses from government teams coordinating Covid-19 programmes. MFCS have also been invited by the Ministry of Information to be a partner in a public education campaign on coronavirus.

Providing essential food

“For me as an adult I can persevere hunger for a day, but for a little child like this, she can’t. I can’t watch her stay hungry. Those are some of the things that force us to go out at night to hustle” Mike, street-connected young person, Mombasa.

The most pressing issue being reported to teams in Mombasa, Kumasi, Kolkata and Waterloo is hunger. While most governments have announced plans to provide food to those who need it, there is a delay and it is not yet getting to those who need it most. For some children on the street, a lack of legal identity documents or school registration excludes them from government food programmes.

In Mombasa, Glad’s House have provided a daily meal to 185 children on the street over the past week. They have also been bulk buying rice, maize, oil and other essentials and distributing food parcels to 57 households in Maboxini slum.

Both MFCS and CoDWelA are engaging local food vendors to source low cost meals for children who can no longer make money to buy food, and in Kolkata, CINI’s team on the street are distributing nutrition packs to children and families not yet able to access the government scheme.

Installing water supplies

Access to clean water has always been a challenge for street-connected children and communities. With Covid-19 putting pressure on everyone to maintain good hygiene, and with water vendors disappearing from the streets, installing water tanks an hand washing points has become a priority, particularly in Mombasa, Kumasi and Waterloo.

In Waterloo, CoDWelA have distributed veronica buckets – with taps for easy washing – on street corners and in busy spots, making hand washing easier. These handwashing points act as hubs for street workers, where they can provide education on the virus and demonstrate good handwashing.

In Kumasi, with the help of street-connected young people, MFCS have installed several tanks and buckets throughout the areas where street children continue to spend their time.

Glad’s House have installed a 3000-litre tank in the centre of Maboxini slum, which is now waiting to be filled by the government water board.

Street Champions leading the way

 
“People do not know what to do right now, which makes them anxious and stressed, increasing their panic instead of preparing them for safety. If we can inform them about how to be safe and provide authentic information about the disease, there will be less panic and more preparedness.” – Street Champion supported by CINI in Kolkata

In 5 wards of Kolkata, street-connected children have been taking part in a participatory health research project over the past 6 months, implemented by CINI and StreetInvest in partnership with Wellcome Trust. Whilst that project is forced to go on hold, the ‘Street Champions’, trained by CINI using StreetInvest’s training pack for youth advocates and researchers, are now acting as community links for Street Workers who can no longer access vulnerable street communities.  As the public health crisis unfolds, they are leading a street-level response to Covid-19 and making sure that the most vulnerable are not being missed.

With the support of Street Workers, the Street Champions have been on the streets of their communities informing their neighbours on good hygiene practices and what do to if they get sick. In the run-up to the lockdown announced on 24th March, the Street Champions provided advice to families living on the streets to prepare them for the lockdown measures: keep identity documents safe and close in case they should be apprehended by authorities; minimise buying non-essential items to reduce social contact, and keep a stock of essentials during the lockdown period.

“The lockdown might cause a sense of loneliness among us, as we will not be able to go out and meet our friends. Some of our friends experience domestic abuse, which they were able to share with us and feel a little better. But now they will not be able to share such things.”

Concerned that further restrictions may make street-connected children dangerously isolated, the Street Champions have established ways to stay connected, through WhatsApp groups, mobile phones and social media, and occasional visits to the street accompanied by Street Workers early in the morning during permitted shopping hours.

What next?

As you can see, Street Work teams are busier than ever, and it will take more than a lockdown to keep them from getting support to the children who are relying on them at this frightening time. But they do need support – something StreetInvest is continuing to provide every day through advice and guidance, advocacy tools and expertise, methodologies and training materials, sharing ideas and good practice, and offering moral support and solidarity across the Global Alliance for Street Work. StreetInvest is working closely with all our partners to develop emergency plans and budgets for what they need – as all of this comes at a cost. We urgently need to raise funds to ensure that their work can continue at this crucial time and that they can buy the supplies that children on the street so desperately need to stay safe.

All our partners anticipate that the situation in their city will get much worse before it gets better, and once the urgent costs of this immediate responses are covered, we can start developing longer-term plans to ensure Street Workers and the services they deliver for street-connected children can adapt and scale up when they inevitably need to.

You may already be aware of our Urgent Appeal on Crowdfunder. We are so grateful to all those who have so generously contributed so far.