Tony Junior carefully folded his makeshift bed made of card boxes and propped it against an unoccupied shop in Kariobangi suburb, located on the eastern fringes of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
It was yet another gloomy morning, and for the 15-year-old street child every new day presents hope for a life plagued by extreme poverty. Junior is a homeless child who has been living under squalid conditions for close to four years.
His life has been that of borrowing passersby and undertaking menial jobs to get by, however, he now faces a new challenge that seeks to jeopardize his survival, COVID-19.
“Before the virus spread to my country I would make some money from borrowing and cleaning people’s windshields around Kariobangi and the neighboring estates, now I barely make enough to buy something to eat,” Junior said during a recent interview.
Homeless children like Junior have found themselves in a daunting situation with the COVID-19 turbulence requiring people to stay at home for longer hours and avoid crowded places. All these measures have proved difficult for a population group whose survival is pegged on the presence of well-wishers on the streets.
According to a national census of street children and families carried out in 2018, Kenya has a total of 46,639 street families and street children out of this figure 72.45 percent are male and an additional 27.65 percent are female.
Some of the factors identified by the ministry of labor and social work as causes for an increased number of street families include mistreatment by relatives, lack of school fees, domestic violence, and death of parents among others.
“My mother went abroad and I was left with my grandmother, our incessant fights proved that we could not live together so I opted to run away.
The streets have become my home,” said Junior.”Before the pandemic restaurants would give us their surplus meal before closing but most of them closed shop after experiencing reduced foot traffic, my friends and I have been having it rough since then,” he added.
Junior said that the cashless transfers being advocated for during the pandemic are beneficial to everyone except street families that possess neither a phone nor a bank account.He added that because of this scenario, passersby no longer have loose change to offer him.
When the sun gives way to night, Junior and his friends often huddle together for warmth, life in the street does not allow for social distancing and Junior and many other street connected families could just be staring death in the face.
“We often find ourselves on the wrong side of the law since containment measures were instituted by the government but the police have never assaulted us, in reality they hand us food and even face masks, our moods are lifted by their efforts to help us,” said Junior.
Reports have shown that homeless families are the most exposed to the contagion due to their deplorable living conditions.
The UN acknowledges that there is acute shortage of concrete data of street families from countries and that the situation exacerbates their marginalization and rights violation.
Giane Wachira who lives in a sprawling slum in Nairobi together with his mother, has been coming to the streets for three years since he was five years old. His mother said that poverty inspired her to go to the street to supplement her meager wages.
“I do odd jobs and the pay cannot meet our needs so I have to come to the streets and look for extra cash,” said Wachira’s mother.
As the government commenced easing of some anti-COVID-19 containment measures to allow for business to revive, Wachira and his mother are thrilled that she can pursue additional income generating activities.
Kenya rolled out a stimulus package aimed at cushioning citizens against the adverse effects of COVID-19, but the money is yet to trickle down to street families amid their vulnerability to the disease.”The relief package is yet to reach us, we hope it reaches us soon,” said Zaida Wachira, Wachira’s mother.