Helping the helpless

As the ongoing pandemic further isolates an already vulnerable group, homeless youth turn to the Hub for protection

Homeless people around Victory Monument. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

Having run away from home at the age of nine, scrawny and pint-sized Bank*, now 16, is one of many faceless street children who have hit rock bottom since the first wave of Covid-19 began last year.

"Covid-19 has made it impossible for us homeless people to find money to pay for our daily expenses," said Bank, a native of Phetchaburi province. "My girlfriend is largely dependent on me to provide for her financially. To make sure we don't end up sleeping on the road I need to generate enough daily income to pay for a room for the night."

Bank has been self-reliant since coming to Bangkok with a friend in search of adventure as his family life was dysfunctional. To financially support himself, he began mixing with the wrong crowd which then led to a life of crime -- two of his most serious charges are drugs and arson. He admits that he took drugs to forget about his troubles, one of which was financial and thus he hadn't slept in two days.

But with the Covid-19 pandemic continuing, things have only gone from bad to worse.

"Sleeping on the streets today is no longer an option because it is infested with danger. That is the reason I have been pushed to earn a living in whatever manner I can. I have also been put behind bars for this. Society says that being behind bars will mould our behaviour and make us better citizens but I feel that this cannot be generalised. All children are different and respond differently. What I believe youngsters need is nurturing and to feel that someone has your back no matter what."

It is in hard times such as this that Bank finds refuge at the Hub, an NGO under the Childline Thailand Foundation umbrella, located near the Hua Lamphong train station. It is here that he and others have three meals, do their laundry and are offered counselling among other services tailored towards their well-being.

Bank said the lockdown and curfews implemented earlier became an obstacle to his illegal activities. Now, he tries to earn an honest living by painting window grills and homes when opportunities arise.

"I can make 500 baht a day with my painting jobs but I usually don't last because I take drugs, which saps my physical and emotional energy to the point that I don't want to continue. I know the effort that goes into an honest day's earnings, so I spend more wisely. If I got money illegally, without the blink of an eye I would spend it on drugs. However, I am attempting to give up on it as it is ravaging my body and mind."

He found himself broke after being released from juvenile detention centre and unable to care for his girlfriend and younger sibling, who are also homeless.

He added that during the pandemic, homeless people don't dare to venture into public spaces. Of course, they fear contracting the virus like anyone else.

"That is why my crew hangs out at the Hub the entire day and leaves at night. The problem is we are running out of ways to financially support ourselves as businesses have closed. Illegal work is also not as lucrative as it was in the past.

"I would like to know why we [homeless] are not considered for government relief measures during the pandemic? Is it because we are at the bottom of the food chain? I have had sleepless nights thinking about what I should do next to survive. I take out my frustrations on my girlfriend and take drugs as a form of letting off steam."

Ilya Smirnoff of The Hub said the ongoing pandemic has impacted homeless youngsters at different levels. The street children under their care reside wherever they can and come to them for food, medication and a sympathetic ear.

He said youngsters that work in the sex and drug industry use the money to secure living arrangements in addition to handling daily expenses. They typically live in cheap hotels, paying a couple of hundred baht a day to keep a roof over their heads.

He said they live moment-to-moment. Their daily concern is to find a resting place where they are relatively safe and alone.

Street children, said the social worker, are some of the most vulnerable because they are open to all types of elements out there, mostly the bad and ugly.

"What the third wave has done is exacerbate their already deteriorating financial hardship as most depend on menial work and with small businesses shut they have few options to support themselves.

"When you are homeless, you cannot pick and choose where your income comes from. Menial work here and there is one legal way they generate money. The older ones might get work as security guards in places that require someone to keep away intruders and the more fortunate ones might land a job at a petrol station. They also dabble in sex and drugs to cover daily expenses."

Smirnoff said that during the third wave, the focus has been on distributing survival bags to homeless youngsters that come to them. The number of street children needing support has doubled while the increase in general services for them has spiked seven to eight fold. This situation has put pressure on their budget as financial support has dwindled.

Smirnoff attributes not having had any Covid-19 cases at the Hub to the fact that the street children isolate themselves from society.

He said the amount of interaction they have with large crowds is relatively low and as long as no one gets it within their circle of friends, they are safe from the virus.

"These kids are very tough. They live on the streets. You don't survive on the streets if you are not quite strong physically. Their immune system may not be strong but it is robust. Even if they are asymptomatic, they are socially isolated from the outside world as they don't interact with people from the various Covid-19 clusters we hear about.

"No one comes close to a street kid, so it is like social distancing by default.

"However what the pandemic has done is put them into deeper isolation from society than ever before. They have just become even less significant."

With the end of the outbreak nowhere in sight, Bank would like government agencies to consider the plight of the homeless during the pandemic.

"Society shuns us because of the way we look and our mannerisms and clothing, so it is not possible to ask for a roof over my head at government-run social service agencies which are already full."

*Not his realname.

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