Each year between 100 and 150 girls between the ages of six and 18 leave home to fend for themselves on the streets of Cape Town. The girls usually have left their homes to escape physical abuse and neglect or they have been sent away when their families can no longer support them. The girls report that they eat better on the streets than they do at home. These female street children are the poorest of the poor. To these girls, Ons Plek provides accessible early intervention and intake 24 hours a day. Ons Plek provides the girls with a safe environment and shelter, while providing appropriate programs for the girls based on an assessment of each girl’s circumstances.
Ons Plek has a simple and passionate mission… to make a substantive improvement in the lives of female street children. Ons Plek is a place where girls find an opportunity to rebuild their lives and their self-esteem, a place where a sense of belonging helps them to take responsibility for themselves and for others. Ons Plek works toward girls being successfully re-united with their families and, that failing, that they will be sufficiently empowered at Ons Plek Projects to grow into healthy, independent, functioning members of society. Girls participate fully in decisions about their lives, residential staff members share the lives of the girls, and office staff members do their jobs with limited resources. Ons Plek is not an escape — it is a real home in a rough life.
Ons Plek is the only comprehensive program for girls on the streets of Cape Town. The intake shelter is situated in the Central Business District of Cape Town, an area where children and youth run to for relative safety if city security systems allow them. The sources of the children’s problems are not easily solved – deepening poverty, abuse, lack of affordable safe housing, unemployment, crime, family instability, alcohol abuse, family violence, etc. Girls come voluntarily or are referred from different sources. Some girls roam around their home community with inappropriate friends, often hanging around cheap local liquor and entertainment centers, before seeking help. Girls who seek help are often teenagers but also younger girls, sometimes girls with babies. Children tend to cope with an inordinate amount of trauma before leaving their home environments. These psychological scars may take a long time to heal for many of the girls. Those girls who find it the most difficult to reintegrate with mainstream society are often also living with learning difficulties and even severe mental health problems. Unaccompanied foreign minors are very vulnerable and often end up as street children. The work of the three main facilities is all interlinked. The three programs integrate to form a whole. Ons Plek’s levels of care included the intake shelter doing comprehensive assessment and development care and Siviwe, a second-phase shelter focusing on therapy and development. Ukondla is a community project with prevention as a priority.
Ons Plek generally works with an average of 100 to 150 girls per year. However, statistics for last two years are an interesting reflection of what is happening in society as well as how effective the programs are. At any given time, there are usually about 130 girls in care at Intake (Ons Plek) and Second Stage Shelter (Siviwe). In 2009, there were 82 children. There were fewer children on the street and there was a sudden decrease in referrals. This was true for other homes and shelters as well. Then the numbers began to climb dramatically from December 2009 and Ons Plek became very full. They usually reunite half of the children with their families per year. In 2010, about 25 percent went home. Of these, eight had been with Ons Plek for several years and only after years of work were the families ready to reunite.
Twenty-five children were unable to settle into Ons Plek, some revolted and ran away repeatedly or vanished soon after being admitted. Of these, 15 were drug users whom Ons Plek and other homes were unable to help. There are almost no free treatment centers for girls on drugs in the Western Cape. Many came having had short treatment courses which are now closed down and began using again. Six of the 25 were habitual street children who moved between home and street following a family tradition of doing so. Only three of the 25 had a caring family member who repeatedly tried to help. Ons Plek continues to make intensive use of local and international volunteers and student interns (33 in 2010) who work part-time or full-time for Ons Plek for periods ranging between three and ten months. They provided a range of activities, including computer skills training, reading, art, drama, education, leadership training, swimming, and baking. In addition to the work with with girls vulnerable enough to dwell on the streets rather than in their homes, Ons Plek is running preventative programs to preserve families. Dropping out of school is often a precursor to “dropping out of home,” a homework support program helps girls stay in school.
At Ukondla I, a group of 19 children attend homework support, enrichment programs, and weekly counseling sessions regularly. The program runs Mondays to Fridays and is similar to the in-house support program at Ons Plek. Staff members regularly visit all the children’s family homes and their parents are now very supportive of the program.
A second homework support program is now open and working with 20 children who have been on the waiting list as well as for children of battered women during their stay at a nearby shelter. When the women leave the shelter their children can continue to attend Ukondla II while their mothers establish themselves in a new life.
In South Africa, it was impossible to ignore the World Cup, and the girls were included in the fun, without putting them in danger or providing a little too much temptation. They went to the FIFA FanFest the day it opened, which gave them a lot of amusement. They danced to the music, blew vuvuzelas, and enjoyed the festivities. In the house, the girls were encouraged to watch matches with the childcare workers; the girls also painted South African flags while doing arts and crafts and took part in playing soccer at a local park with the dedicated volunteers.