September 10, 2012
September 10, 2012
JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Eventz Pierre is a shy boy who lives in the streets of Jérémie, a town in southwestern Haiti.
“I don’t know how old I am because after I was baptized, my father took my birth certificate,” he says. “I live and sleep in the streets.”
He says he and two other kids sleep in a neighborhood called Makandal, one of the poorest areas of Jérémie.
"One of them has the same name as I, Eventz,” he says. “The other is called Tinel.”
When they are able to collect some money, they can pay to sleep in a house.
“We sleep in a house where the people allow us to sleep under the condition that we bring them some money every evening before we go to sleep,” he says.
Eventz says that his father left him when he was born. Then his mother died, so he moved in with his grandfather in the countryside. But Eventz says that his grandfather’s wife used to abuse him, so he fled to the streets of Jérémie, the capital of Haiti’s Grand’Anse department.
“His wife, who is not my grandmother, mistreated me every time my grandfather would go out into the fields,” he says. “She used to tie up my feet and my hands and beat me over nothing.”
One day, he ran away.
“I saved myself by coming to the city and have been in the streets ever since,” he says.
He begs for money in order to buy food and clothes, with no time to go to school.
“When people see me, they sometimes give me money,” he says. “And then I can buy some used clothes so I have something to wear, and I buy some food.”
Today he wears a gray T-shirt with red lettering, gray pants and cream tennis shoes. But he doesn’t always collect enough money to cover his basic needs.
“When I don’t have enough money, I hang out in front of a restaurant,” he says. “But there are days when I get nothing. Sometimes the women who sell food on the street give me a little something if there are leftovers.”
Eventz and his street friends are not alone.
Many children in Haiti live in the streets and beg for money to support themselves. Some have single parents to live with, but they can’t afford to take care of them so they spend most of their time in the streets begging in order to take care of themselves and their families. Representatives of government agencies say they don’t have the funding to care for these children, though they add that many are more interested in earning money for food or other necessities than attending school or receiving government shelter.
Duverge Jean Meranord, 46, director of the Ministry of Social Affairs’ local office in Jérémie, says there are no reliable figures on the number of street children in Haiti.
“I can’t tell you how many children are in the streets,” he says. “It is almost impossible to get a correct count because these kids do not stay in one place.”
Meranord says that Jérémie is one of the communities in the Grand’Anse department with the highest number of children living on the street.
But the children are not just looking to obtain money for themselves in the streets. Many also support their families.
“Some of these children have a whole family depend[ing] on them for food and clothing,” Meranord says.
Like Makandal, another area of Jérémie suffering from extreme poverty is St. Helene. This neighborhood also has a lot of children who spend most of their days in the streets, like Macula Pierre, 12.
Dressed in a navy blue T-shirt and black shorts, she speaks firmly yet with a smile on her face.
“I have been in the streets for two years now, and I do that every day,” she says.
She lives with her mother, but she can’t afford to feed Macula and her brother.
“I have lived with my mother since I was born,” says Macula, who wears her short hair in a perm. “I don’t know my father, but I have an older brother who is in the streets with me.”
There, they can always find food, she says.
“The reason I went to the streets is there were several days I had nothing to eat,” she says. “When I am in the streets, I can always find something to eat. Sometimes an African from the United Nations gives me some food when he sees me, or the vendors when they are finished selling, they share their leftovers with me. That way, I always have something that I can take home with me.”
Renel Simon, a shoeless 10-year-old dressed in a T-shirt and navy blue shorts, says he also lives in the streets because his single parent can’t afford to support him.
“I have a father, but my mother died,” he says. “I live in the streets, and I sleep with the other kids.”
He says that his father lives in St. Helene, but he cannot support Renel. Instead, Renel supports him.
“When I get a little money, I bring it to my dad, and then I go back into the streets,” he says. “I get more money when I am in an area that has more foot traffic, like in front of the market or the money transfer office or a restaurant.”
Gerald Aime, a 12-year-old in jeans, a red T-shirt with white stripes and rose plastic sandals, tells of a similar home life that has forced him to the streets of St. Helene.
“I live with my mother,” he says in a clear and brave voice. “My father died. I have been in the streets for about four years. I live in the streets because my mother has nothing to give me.”
The single mother has five daughters and four sons to support.
“Every morning at 6 o’clock, I go out into the street and I get back home sometime in the afternoon. I eat the leftovers of the street vendors, and the little money people give me during the day, I use that to buy food.”
As Gerald talks, he holds a green plastic toy that he says the mayor gave him at a toy distribution at the national library in December 2011.
Anodi Compert is also the child of a single mother. The 10-year-old wearing a black T-shirt and sky blue shorts has three sisters and a little brother.
“I came to the streets because my mother could no longer support me,” he says. “She doesn’t have anybody herself who could help her out from time to time. My mother has accepted that I go [to] the streets.”
Anodi has been living in the streets for as long as he can remember.
“I don’t remember when I started that,” Anodi says. “I start out at 6 in the morning.”
Unlike most street children, Anodi attends school under Haitian President Michel Joseph Martelly’s program to provide street children with free education.
“I only go home to eat and put clothes on to go to school,” Anodi says. “School is in the afternoon.”
But most street children do not participate in the school program. Instead, they spend their time trying to earn money for food and other basic necessities.
“In order for the kids to make more money, they stand in front of the money transfer offices or in front of the stores and ask the customers for money,” Meranord says.
Meranord says that he used to take care of these kids since nobody else wanted to.
“Sometimes I house these children with friends of mine until we can find an orphanage to place them in,” he says.
It has been a while since his office took children off the streets and turned them over to the ministry’s Social Services Department, which is primarily responsible for taking kids in off the streets.
“But every Jan. 1, we have some activities for the street children,” he says, referring to Haiti’s Independence Day.
His department also aims to educate girls about their sexual and reproductive health.
“We are quite aware that young girls are exposed to a lot of sexual abuse,” he says. “We try to talk to them and give them advice because they are at puberty.”
But Meranord says that the Social Services Department doesn’t have the means to take care of all the street children in need.
“Social Services cannot really take on these children to help them,” he says. “Where would we put them?”
He says that the ministry can’t offer the children enough to prevent them from living in the streets.
“Money is one of the major reasons that kids take to the streets,” he says. “And we really do not have a place to put them. These children value their autonomy, and they have in some sense establish[ed] the life they want to live. Even if Social Services can find a place for two or three of them, that would not really change anything.”
He says that the other departments in the ministry can’t offer much support.
“It is a really difficult situation for Social Services,” he says. “We would like to do more, but we do not have the means.”
He says that nongovernmental organizations should do more.
“They leave the big problems with Social Services and then act as if we never do anything,” Meranord says. “I think organizations in the Grand’Anse are more into doing radio spots than real action. Especially in Jérémie, where there are more children in the street than other place. And these groups do not do anything to help take care of these children.”
But representatives of these organizations say they don’t have the means either. Orphanages are also overburdened, and the conditions in some are worse than those in the streets, Meranord says.
Marc Alio, 30, is one of the people in charge of the Centre Communautaire Perpetual Secours, an orphanage in Jérémie. He says it can’t afford to take any additional children off the streets.
“We here at the center are willing to take these children off the streets, but we do not have the means to do so,” he says. “We do not have a place where they can sleep. It was our own families and our friends who would help us with the children. We used to take babies and children up to the age of 12, but we are no longer able to do that.”
He says that the orphanage used to offer activities but stopped because of the children’s lack of interest.
“Two or three years ago, we used to invite children who lived in the streets every Saturday to take part in activities that we organized for them,” he says “But they lost interest and just did not come anymore. If we had the means, we could make this the main center for kids in Jérémie.”
Meanwhile, children like Gerald, Renel, Macula, Anodi and Eventz struggle to secure access to food, water, education and shelter for themselves and for their families.
“I would like to some nice clothes so I can go to church every Sunday,” Renel adds.