Caring for the young and homeless during COVID-19
A children’s refuge finds ways to continue supporting vulnerable children in Bangkok from a safe distance
“I’m afraid I’ll get infected living on the streets,” said Vee (not her real name), cautiously removing her face mask to eat lunch at the Hub Saidek, a refuge for Bangkok’s vulnerable children.
Young Vee has been sleeping on the streets for months and sharing a tent in front of the Hub with five others for the past two weeks. Last night, she managed to rent a 250-baht room, allowing her to have a morning shower and come for lunch at the Hub feeling fresh and clean.
She will have to scrape together 10 baht for an evening shower at the hotel. She doesn’t feel safe washing herself in the gas station toilet like the boys.
Living on the streets since she was 12, the Suphan Buri native spent a year with her mother’s new family when she was 15 but her time under a roof was cut short. Slapped by her stepfather, she fled from home.
“I left and came back to live here,” she said, gesturing towards the streets of Hua Lamphong. She regularly comes to the Hub for food and help.
Founded by the Childline Thailand Foundation in 2011, the Hub is a refuge for vulnerable children under 18 to seek food, counselling and shelter if they have nowhere to sleep overnight. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were as many as 15 children staying every night.
Vee is among the 20,000 children living on the streets nationwide, the Foundation estimates. Most end up on the streets because of domestic violence and abuse, both physical and psychological.
The Hub has distributed basic items and food to children living on the streets, as young as 11, more than 10,000 times every year for a decade now. Its staff have worked closely on around 400 cases of vulnerable children, half of which have been closed, meaning that some have managed to escape the vicious cycle of homelessness.
The Hub’s work has become more important than ever as COVID-19 makes life on the streets even tougher and more dangerous for these children, who struggle to find a safe and clean place to sleep. But the refuge has been forced to close its doors in accordance with the government’s COVID-19 restrictions since late April this year.
Undeterred, its committed staff have found ways to continue supporting vulnerable children living on the streets. Hygiene supplies as well as snacks and three meals a day are now distributed through a small glass window and conversations are continued from a distance.
“This is the best we can do to support them at the moment,” said Kanyapak Sukyu, the Hub’s manager since 2014. “Children can come to us for food, hygiene supplies and other necessities.”
Kanyapak says it takes a while to earn trust with children from vulnerable groups. It could be three months before they start to talk to the staff, and in some cases, it can take a whole year for them to open up. Building trust is critical for staff to reach out to children facing physical or mental health challenges, such as appetite loss or depression.
“These children don’t want to live this kind of life but they have no way out,” said Kanyapak.
UNICEF is supporting the provision of psychological first aid and child protection case management through the Hub and through the Foundation’s 1387 contact centre. Through this psychosocial care and child protection support, vulnerable children are assisted in their emotional recovery after an extremely distressing event and can access protection, care and support for their physical and emotional safety.
UNICEF is also supporting the Hub by supplying soap, cleaning disinfectant, hand sanitizer and face masks and has donated more than 100,000 items of personal protection equipment to communities and non-profit organizations working with vulnerable groups in Bangkok.
“For children facing homelessness amid the COVID-19 pandemic, their childhood is put in jeopardy and they lack the basic needs they need to survive and thrive,” said UNICEF Thailand Child Protection Officer Parinya Boonridrerthaikul. “We are supporting the work of Childline Thailand Foundation and the Hub to ensure that these children will continue to have access to hygiene supplies and, since June 2020, we have been helping more than 8,500 children receive counselling and child protection support through the Foundation’s contact centre and the Hub. Our support for vulnerable children must continue while the refuge doors are closed and the virus continues to spread.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic making the crucial task of helping children get off the streets and into safe homes even harder, our partners like the Hub are finding ways to continue extending a helping hand even in the hardest of times.
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