Street Children: “Rubbish is Only Matter Out of Place”

One question that I was often asked about the lives of street children was why they would sleep on the street instead if going back to the “comfort and safety” of their own home: concepts that us, privileged few automatically associate with the word home.

When I heard the horror stories of the street, I often wondered similar things. But when I started visiting where these children’s families lived, often answer was found in the photos I took. Sometimes the stories of emotional, financial, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, violence and neglect inside the home were the reason. But often, less sensational reasons presented themselves. The physical structure of “home” was so small that they often had to sleep outside it anyway, under the staircases, in the building entrances, outside altogether.

So I started answering that question with one of my own: “what would make a child want to travel for miles back to an area that is often dirtier, scarier, lonelier, often more abusive and less comfortable than the street corner or under the bridge where they had spent their whole day, made friends and learned to survive in?”

There is dirt, danger and discomfort in both places… One was just miles away and not worth the effort of the journey back… But what makes us ask the question is rarely the state of the alternative place the child has to return to, but mainstream society’s absolute distaste and discomfort for seeing private life routines taking place in public spaces. The reminder of our failures as a society to protect the vulnerable by ensuring we provide them with safe alternatives. That’s what’s ugly about the street and children out of place – not the children and their practices, but society and it’s apathy towards the lack of alternative care.

Screenshot 2015-04-17 09.24.35

The title of this blog quotes Mary Douglas who argues that rubbish is nothing more than something out of place and so becomes dirty and dangerous. That would apply to children out of “place” the place we (again, the privileged few) would see suitable for children: home or school etc. and so what of child soldiers, child prostitutes, street children? And this of course leads to the problems with definitions.

So many working with street children are so concerned with the politically (and sometimes academically) correct definitions and we see terms like “street connected children”, “children of the street”, “children in the street”, “children in a street situation”. I find them all unhelpful. So when I went out working with street children I thought I would focus on finding another definition and I chose to look at what the slang for street children in different countries was… here’s a summary of what I found:

  • India – Without root or roof or carrying the stamp of the street
  • Brazil – A younger child of a slave or an individual with no word of honour
  • Egypt – A  small insect that destroys grains and crops
  • Columbia – The plague
  • Ethiopia – Vermin
  • Cameroon – Mosquitoes

The biggest problem with these definitions is that they dehumanise the victim. When you start referring to children as pests, then it becomes more acceptable and justifiable to mistreat them. It is acceptable for the police to run after a mosquito and abuse the vermin and try to get rid of the plague.

The one slang word that moved me to tears and perhaps summarises the plight of street children the most came from Vietnam, where the children are referred to as “bui doi” which translates to “The Dust of Life”.

Parallel Roads, Parallel Realities… Wasted Food and Hungry People


Today after the conference there were seven whole trays of untouched sandwiches, about 20 packets of crisps, 20 big cookies and lots of fruit left over. I originally thought they would be saved for an event happening tomorrow, but the guys in catering told me that it all gets thrown out at 7pm. So, after getting the okay from Sasha to take them and try to give them to anyone hungry / homeless etc, I called Shariff and asked him if he would come and help me carry them and go on a walk together to give them out.

We walked down Russell Square and passed Melissa, a lady singing as she played her guitar. She had the sweetest voice and when I complimented her on it, she got up and threw her arms around me thanking me! We asked her if we could share some of our food and she told us she loved Birkbeck and had gained her first degree there from the geography department…

Next, we met Andre who was selling the big issue outside Sainsbury’s in Holborn. I asked him if he’d be interested in sharing our food that came from a conference, after asking what conference, and I explaining it was about space and intimacies and all things related, he told me he was homeless at the moment, but he was going to do a PhD at UCL about homelessness and he was already collecting his data for the ethnography he was about to do. He is studying territories that homeless people carve out for themselves and how the discourses around homelessness are almost always missing that angle and he wanted me to share the abstracts from the conference with him. He also told gave us directions to where the food may be most appreciated.

As we walked away sharing some more food with Jerry at the station, a girl called Nadeen approached me and asked if she could help us out sometime. After regrettably saying this was just a one off, I gave her my email and asked why we don’t organise something amongst ourselves with universities and just get stuff done without the crap of bureaucracy and in her, we made a friend

THEN… we went to Lincoln Inns Fields, where Andre had instructed us to go and we thought we saw what looked like a kind of gathering or peaceful protest. When we got closer, we realised there were two tables set up, one with coffee and tea and one with one tray of sandwiches that was quickly running out. On the other side of the tables was a LONG queue of homeless people waiting their turn t to be served. Shariff and I approached one of the men behind the tables and asked if they would accept some food we had to share. The timing was amazing! We came with bags full of food, just as they were running out, and the man was so wonderful he said we could join them giving the food out ourselves if we’d like to stay and have the pleasure of serving others – he was spot on.

What was incredible was the alternative reality happening in a road parallel to Holborn High Street.. just on the other side of the suits and rat race was the other world maintained because of what was happening on that side.

Never, ever underestimate what your part in change can be. And if you’re interested in doing something about the food that gets to waste; just give it out, find out about the nearest place that does stuff like this and get involved. I gave my card to the guy in Lincoln Inns and he’s gonna get in touch with Birkbeck to see if they’ll allow the team to go over at the end of the day and pick up the food… here’s hoping that Birkbeck’s leftist vibe allows this to happen.

The crumbs that fall from our table are not justice, but the an awareness of that is a start to getting it sorted out. Do good anyway – even if it’s good for the wrong reasons. Little is more than nothing.

Des histoires… indicibles… Les “chanceux” enfants des rues.



Je viens de trouver par hasard cette photo, sur Facebook. C’est l’une parmi celles difficiles d’ignorer, n’est-ce pas. Cela fait longtemps, chaque fois que je ferme mes paupières, je vois cet enfant en guenilles dormir sur le coffre d’une Mercédès, parallèle à un chien errant, dormant par contre au-dessus d’une Kia. Mais cela ne dure pour de vrai que quelques jours; comme vous, lecteur, le reflet va disparaitre comme j’étais prise par la vie quotidienne, son va-et-vient ou probablement par la politique ou les désastres naturels. Je dirais que c’est normal…

Pourtant il y a une autre chose qui me vient à la tête lorsque j’examine la photo. L’histoire. Je n’ai jamais vraiment pensé a cela, mais en tombant sur cette photo, je me rends compte à quel point sont incroyablement chanceux, les enfants avec lesquels je travaille. Je n’arrive pourtant pas à croire que je viens de taper cela! L’ironie! Mais ils sont chanceux, ils sont plus chanceux que ce petit puisqu’ils ont, plus qu’un refuge, ils ont trouvé malgré tout une oreille a l’écoute de leurs histoires et une passerelle de leurs voix.

Cela m’a fait penser a quelque chose que Stephen King a autrefois écrit dans “Différentes saisons” alors qu’évidement il écrivait sur une autre chose : ” Les choses les plus importantes sont les plus difficiles à dire. Ce sont les choses dont tu as honte, parce que les mots les réduisent- les mots réduisent les choses – qui ont semblé sans limite quand elles étaient encore et seulement dans ta tête – a plus rien lorsqu’elles s’expriment. Mais c’est plus que ça, n’est-ce pas? Les choses les plus importantes se trouvent tellement proches de ton “cœur secret”, comme un point de repère à un trésor que tes ennemies aimeraient le filer en douce. Et il se peut que tu fasses des révélations qui te coutent très cher, rien que pour avoir des gens qui te regardent bizarrement, ne comprenant rien de ce que tu as raconté, ou pourquoi tu as pensé que c’était aussi important que tu as presque pleuré pendant que tu le disais. C’est le pire, je pense. Quand le secret reste enfermé a l’intérieur, non par besoin d’un conteur mais par besoin d’une oreille compréhensive.”

Je regarde de nouveau la photo et je vois les chaussons, gardées en une telle haute estime, bien supérieure à l’enfant lui-même. S’agit-il sans doute d’une possession de valeur dans l’impitoyable dureté de la rue qui est devenue leur premier nom – “Enfant de la rue”… Je vois la bouche ouverte et me demande quels mots s’évadent de ces souffles, et les pieds croisés et en raison de mon travail avec les enfants des rues je sais que cet enfant les a vu décroisés de force. Toutes les histoires racontées et jamais racontées dans ce seul paragraphe me tourmenteront comme celles que j’ai écoutées. Les histoires de ces fenêtres qui regardent cet enfant mais n’ont, semble-t-il, pas d’espace pour embrasser cette enfance.

Pourquoi suis-je en train d’écrire cela? Parce que j’ai réalisé qu’a défaut d’adopter ces enfants, de mener des actions de lobbying en leur faveur ou de leur fournir des alternatives, il y a autre chose que les gens puissent faire pour les aider; c’est au moins d’être là et de les écouter. Quand bien même que les enfants mentent, leurs mensonges ne sont souvent aussi sadiques que la réalité qu’ils cachent. J’ai bien appris cela au centre d’accueil quand Sarah nous imitait comment elle mendiait et racontait aux gens que son père fut tué et qu’elle était devenue responsable d’une mère handicapée et de 4 petits frères et sœurs. Cela m’a ébahi parce que sa vraie histoire, qu’elle s’est enfuie car son père avait l’habitude de verser de l’eau bouillante sur son corps, rien que pour les plaisirs de sa belle-mère, aurait secouée plus profondément les passagers. Rien qu’écouter les histoires qu’ils veulent raconter et voir une photo pareille, pour se rendre-compte qu’il y a des histoires manquant une oreille compatissante.


Article original: www. Par Nelly Ali. Titre: Stories… Untold… The “Lucky” Street Children

Traduit par: Nourhane Agamawy


Stories… Untold… The “Lucky” Street Children


I came across this picture on Facebook today. It’s one of those that are hard to ignore isn’t it. For a long time, every time I close my eyelids, I’m going to see that child in rags sleeping on the boot of a Mercedes car parallel to a stray dog sleeping on top of a Kia. But that’s for a few days and after that, like you, reader, the image will disappear as I get caught up in my own life, the worlds ups and downs and perhaps in it’s politics and natural disasters. That’s only normal.

But there is something else that passes my mind when I look at this picture for a while. The story. I had never really thought of this before, but having stumbled on this photograph I realised how incredibly lucky the children I work with are. I cannot even believe I just typed that! The irony! But they are lucky, they are luckier than that child because they have, more than finding refuge, have found a listening ear to their story and a bridge for their voice.

It reminded me of something Stephen King had once written in “Different Seasons” though of course he was writing about something different: “The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

Continue reading

Homelessness: It’s fleece because they set fire to sleeping bags.


Ellis drew this and gave it to me, not for money, but as a thank you that I “didn’t just pass by without making eye contact but got down to my level and sat shoulder to shoulder with me.”

Ellis is a homeless man in Central London. He was told by Mr Andrew Pearson that he couldn’t draw when he was doing his GCSEs… He later got an A grade at college doing art. His dream is to become a famous artist only so he can go to schools and tell kids never to allow anyone to kill their dreams or their talent. Continue reading

I Hugged a Homeless Guy. We Didn’t Have a Choice.

I walked out of the station today on my way to an event on the future of feminism. I wondered as I was making my way there why I and others come to such events. I thought perhaps, we were like those of us who read literature in the illusive attempt to become “better people” or build an ethical moral system or whatever. I wasn’t entirely sure.

I saw a homeless guy sat by the railings before I crossed the road. I dug into my bag for some change as I approached and he said, “if you stop just for a few words that’ll be good”.  Ashamed at my crass gesture I said “how’s it going?” And we started to talk.

Lee started to tell me about his evening the day before when he fell unconscious and the paramedics had feared he had a heart attack. He complained that no one had stopped by to check he was ok before he “went out of it”. I offered him an explanation that perhaps people were uncomfortable with their fortune and it was easier not to see the truth, the result of their silence towards injustice. He replied, now with a tear rolling down his cheek, “If they feel embarrassed, imagine what it feels to be the homeless guy.”

I, a little more broken by this world of limited choice, offered “it feels like you’ve had a pretty rough night, you could do with a hug?” to which Lee got up and accepted. He hugged me, at first reservedly, then, when he realised I was not gagging from the smell of what it is to be homeless, that I did not flinch at the possibility of “catching” whatever it is that must be crawling on him, he hugged me. He hugged me like he had lost a child I had found for him, like I was a father he was making amends with, like I was hope that had decided to come for a visit. And I, I hugged Lee like I do all the street children and the homeless men and women I’ve hugged before him. I hugged him as an apology for all the love that missed them, I held him as if imprinting some sort of love that could stay a little longer than the physical embrace would. I hugged him, that was all.

He was now sobbing and he told me that it was the first hug he had since his wife died three years ago in his arms. Snippets of Lee’s life unfolded… from his time in the army where he was “happy to take a bullet for this country”, to his wife’s battle with cancer, which meant he had to leave work to care for her, to her family taking the house that she had just bought in her name, to not knowing how to get his rights from the system, to his ex street girl friend who bought him a guitar that a guy at the hostel stole, whom he beat up and ultimately was banned from there and ended up on the streets again… and so it went on.

It didn’t really matter what the details of Lee’s story was. But, two things burned at my core as I walked away. The essence of this encounter. My crippling shame that even I, who is passionate about street kids walked by a homeless adult, not seeing past the dirty nails to the snapshots of all his beautiful memories, his picture in his army uniform beaming with pride, his clean shave in wedding pictures with a wife that left him too soon. I did not smell past the urine to the smell of freshly cut grass running under his feet as a child, or that baby skin that must have bought his own family lots of cooing and smiles. If he was still any of those things we consider “normal” many more would have stopped to see what was so terribly wrong. We would have been appalled that this young man was out here, putting out his hat waiting for our charity and putting up with our arrogance. I remembered how often I had said that the street babies we feel sorry for today are the same street kids that irritate us tomorrow and the same adults that we fear their thuggery in the next few years.

The other thing I went away with was how we have fallen prey to the neoliberal lies of choice of which we really had nothing of. We do NOT have a choice. There are no jobs. The government has no capacity or willingness, to absorb you if you are not part of what makes it able to govern you more tightly and like Lee said “if you fall off the net, nothing’s going to catch you.”

We must come together to think how we will deal with this? How can we live letting our governments get away with treating ex army men this way? I hate the army, I hate everything about it, but what I do know is that while it exists, it will need to treat those it lets go better. It’s a recurring theme that the homeless have served their country and that they leave with mental health issues and are therefore more vulnerable to homelessness. We need to come together and talk about why charities like Shelter have to operate on a priority housing system that means Lee who is physically fit has to brave sleeping rough.

Or of course, we have the choice, don’t we, to ignore every Lee, walk a little bit faster wherever he is. We have the choice to comfort our conscious by wondering why the hell he doesn’t just engage in exploitative waged labour like the rest of us.