Every now and then, street and youth work organisations share alarming news about the growing number of children on the streets in Belgian cities. This time, the news came from the capital Brussels, where dozens of children – mostly from North-African descent – are homeless. The actual number of homeless kids is probably even 3 or 4 times higher … These youngsters are mostly between 9 and 14 years old, sleep on the streets or in squatted buildings, travel alone or in small groups as city hoppers through Europe, and deliberately stay away from the different care and support programs. They survive by begging or by committing petty crime and suffer very often from serious drug addiction.
At this moment, we don’t have a mobile school in Brussels yet, therefore it needs to be said that we are not working directly with these youngsters. We don’t have any information about their specific cases either. Moreover, we are aware of the immense complexity actors face in the field, due to the challenging problems and the institutional complexity in Brussels. However, – thanks to more than 20 years of experience of working with street-connected young people on 4 continents – we are not surprised at all to see more and more children on the streets of Belgian cities. The fact that we already launched 14 European mobile schools through our local partners in countries such as Greece, Spain, and Germany, is clear evidence of a growing need.
Maybe the most important conclusion in this complex story is that there is no quick fix for the issue. They who pretend to have instant solutions, will be proved wrong. Unfortunately, politicians and the traditional care system still focus very often on getting these youngsters out of the streets as quickly as possible. The youngsters are then referred to a formal or informal care setting, and the problem is considered ‘solved’. In a lot of cases, the city hoppers become center hoppers and because of their total distrust of adults – often due to traumatic experiences back in their home country – they end up on the streets again. A second, third and fourth reintegration attempt is undertaken, each time with the same result. As a result of this process of constant failure, frustration rises.
The crucial first step to bring this target group closer to society is often forgotten: the humanisation of these youngsters. They desperately need a trustworthy adult in their lives. Approaching them with an agenda that only looks at solutions for their terrible situation and problems, will not work. But if we go towards them with an unconditional, empathetic approach, free from any judgement or hidden agenda, and by asking them the crucial question what they want and what their perspective is, then we take a step in the right direction of authentic connection and building trust. By repeating this process over and over again, we create an environment of trust in which these youngsters can take up responsibility and can take their lives back in their own hands.
Most of these youngsters search and find a sense of belonging on the streets. The street is a way out, an escape route from the misery they face in their family or home country, and thus a better alternative. The fact that they are extremely vulnerable for all kinds of violence, abuse and exploitation on the streets is a reality they deal with, because they equally enjoy the freedom and identity they have while being on the streets. On the streets or in their gang, they are somebody, and in society, they are not! A simplified vision that sees the streets as ‘bad’ and the care system as ‘good’, will therefore never be successful because it criminalises the identity of these kids. The result will be more polarisation, and less connection…
Our approach therefore deliberately focuses on opportunities instead of problems. A ten year old who decides to leave his desperate situation in North-Africa behind and travels to Europe with no money is obviously a problem. However, we tend to forget that to survive this journey, a set of crucial skills is needed, such as courage, entrepreneurship, and creativity, just to name a few. Talking about the potential and the capacities of these youngsters builds a stronger connection and creates a solid foundation for a sustainable process of empowerment.
That’s the reason why we at MobileSchool.org support organisations to put his positive approach based on connection, empathy, and empowerment towards street-connected children into practice. We train local professionals and offer them materials, methodologies, and coaching. From Guatemala-City to Nairobi, from Düsseldorf to – who knows in the future? – Brussels. Our mobile schools are positive meeting places for young people where they are unconditionally accepted and respected, and where they can take their lives in their own hands. The StreetSmart digital products allow youth workers to track and support the personal development journeys of their target group.
As stated earlier, we realise this is a complex, long and time-consuming process, and of course coordination between different stakeholders across borders and specific attention for each individual case are also an integral part of the solution. It’s one of the reasons why we pro-actively spread this opportunity-oriented philosophy on street work, to make sure this group of youngsters – wherever they go – can count on a trustworthy adult who looks at them in a non-judgmental way and sees their potential.
Worldwide there are over 150 million street-connected children roaming around our cities. A huge reservoir of untapped talent who can take up a positive role in society. The fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is if we are prepared to see their potential and to challenge our own point of view. Do we see them solely as a problem, or do we focus on the opportunity? It’s up to you…