Nowhere to Go: Homelessness on the Streets of Addis in Rainy Seasons

During a heavy rain at night, while lying in a comfortable bed with the sounds of rain soothing you to sleep, have you ever thought, “what about the homeless people outside?” 

Addis Ababa is a city where the night chill may not be as severe as freezing one out to death like what happened in Debre Birhan, a town 130Km north, about a year ago.  But still many people who live in the streets especially children suffer more in rainy seasons than other days. They try to minimize the suffering of the cold and survive by taking different kinds of drugs and drinking alcohol whenever available but very frequently sipping benzene, and sometimes dangerous adhesives. They also smoke cigarettes to stand the cold. Sometimes they burn tyre for the heat breathing the dark smoke. 

Throughout the world, there are several people who lead their lives in the streets and rainy seasons are the horrors of this dejected life. Though adults also suffer, studies regarding homeless children are especially grim. According to a report by Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA) in 2006, approximately 200,000 children were working and living in urban streets in Ethiopia, of which 150,000 were in Addis Ababa. 

On the road from Olympia to Meskel Flower, there is a place behind the pedestrian way and the roadside trees where about ten street children spend their nights. One morning, five of them were sitting with a sad looking sagged face at the fallen wooden electric pole. Different pieces of plastic sheets and tattered clothes were on the ground. Two of them, the youngest and the oldest among the group, nine and sixteen years old, were hiding a plastic bottle holding benzene within the sleeves of their tattered jackets, from which they sip every now and then. The youngest looks as if he has been struck by a certain kind of disease that his eyes are deep in to their sockets and stators as if he is spelling every word with a lower voice. His friends say this is because he has sipped too much and got ‘high’. 

Wendmeneh Tigabu the oldest of all, has made the street his home since he was 10. “I grew up on the street” he told EBR. “Because I use this things [taking drugs whenever available and sipping the benzene] whenever I get hungry and cold, which is why now I am addicted,” he added. “I beg or carry luggage and other things for people to get some money during the day and spend the night here. But if it rains heavily my friends and I spend the night may be on a verandah, in the tunnel or on this ground covered with plastic sheets.”

Especially at the night falls, it is customary to see youngsters taking certain kind of drugs or sipping benzene at a traffic stop lights, staggering and begging with slurred words.

“The rate of taking different kinds of drugs increases during the rainy seasons. And many are now turned in to using benzene because of its longer spans and is more accessible than most of the other stuffs that can be used to get high,” says Endashaw Abera, Advocacy and Communal Mobilization Sub Core Process leader at the Addis Ababa City Administration. “People who live in the streets also show distinct behavior other than taking different kinds of drugs, they are on the move to avoid places which has no shed and they move collectively.”

For girls, since the risks of being raped are high, they prefer to go out with someone while earning money, says Endashaw.  “Particularly in a rainy season they don’t take the risk unless there is a man who act like a husband and take the responsibility of guarding, therefore they do prostitution with a low price standing on road sides.”

The other option for both men and women in the street is spending a night at a mass room paying some amount of money each night. These mass rooms are known as “Kesha Bet”, a room which looks like a big empty hall and which will be locked up behind after hundreds of street children get inside. No mattress or blanket except rags which belongs to them; and the heat from each other’s body serves to sustain the night’s cold. “I used to sleep at Kesha Bet around Meshualekia on debrezeit road, but now the fee has increased to 15 birr and I can’t afford it,” says Negowo Balcha, 13, who came from Adama three years ago after his cart, which he used to earn his living with caring loads, was stolen. 

The Addis Ababa City Administration has been undertaking rehabilitation program for streets youths since 2010/11. For the last three years, the program has enabled 3,236 people to earn a living through cobble stone carving, according to Bahiru Abebe, leader of Support and Rehabilitation Sub Core Process at the City’s Social and Labour Affairs Bureau. “But we don’t have a specific program for those who live in the street to get through the rainy seasons unless we try to make the time of giving trainings with all accommodations at the rainy seasons,” Bahiru added.

From offering spare clothing to providing space to sleep, individuals offer helping hand to the children. Faith for Ethiopia is one such informal group that helps those children in abject poverty. The team, which was founded, by Martha Tadesse and nine friends help 30 children on permanent basis by providing lunch five days a week. During rainy seasons they collect cloths from volunteers for the needy. This summer, they collected 120 blankets covered with plastic sheets and gave each for two street kids on June 25. “Our experience illustrates that everyone can help street children with small amount of money” said Dawit Getachew, one of the founding member of Faith for Ethiopia.

Economic, social and cultural rights which urge a state to provide basic needs to citizens are a progressive human right concept in which a state is expected to advance with its economic capacity. And only developed countries are able to fulfill a minimum living standard to citizens by offering basic needs. Shelter, as one of the basic needs, is available for those who are on the social welfare lists. 

But here in Addis Ababa as a capital city of a poor country, it is those ‘Kesha Bets,’ which provide sheltering service and though small, serving only those who can pay. Government doesn’t want to include establishing shelter homes in to its plan of assisting those living in the streets. “It will be a pulling factor for those who are on the verge of joining the streets,” says Bahiru reminding that even the rehabilitation program has tempted many, especially those who live in the country side. Endeshaw shares the opinion that the institutionalized support is not an accepted approach to dry streetism. “It will make the course of rehabilitation very difficult,” he said.

People in despair poverty may wish to live in the streets so long as there is hope to be included in the government’s rehabilitation programmes. But streetism is a problem even to the most developed countries which provide a rich social welfare to citizens.

Providing shelter has been an experience of addressing the problems of those living in the street in the developed world. Of course it comes with economic abilities; but Ethiopia might need to do the same.

2nd Year . August 2014 . No.17

More in this category: « Hope to Single Mothers


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