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Rising up from the streets in Mumbai

A change in strategy is preparing young waifs for a better future

Rising up from the streets in Mumbai

There are about 37,000 homeless children in Mumbai, according to a new census. reporter, Mumbai

February 4, 2014

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Outside Mumbai's historic train station, a group of young friends sat with their newly found treasure – trash collected during the day that they'll sell for a few rupees.

They remain at the station’s side entrance beside a row of food stalls, where customers sometimes offer leftovers or a few coins. Come nighttime, the boys sleep on a narrow grassy strip around the corner, when allowed by police. The strip is now their home – what's left of their dream of Mumbai.

An estimated 37,000 homeless children live in Mumbai, according to the first-ever census of street children conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Action Aid India. The results of the census were released in December.

The survey revealed that about 40 percent of the kids have witnessed some form of abuse in their lives, 25 percent are illiterate and nearly 15 percent are substance abusers.

A member of the group, Shafiq, was 9 years old when he arrived in Mumbai as a runaway. He comes from a village in Rajasthan and dreamed of becoming a film hero like those portrayed in Bollywood. For about a year he managed to survive on the streets of Mumbai, joining a gang to earn spending money.

After a while, he began attending a Salesian facility in the city known as "the shelter" where he can bathe, eat, do sports and learn some life skills needed to escape poverty and a life on the streets.

"The boys living in the shelter looked happy and they learned something," Shafiq said. "After some months on the street I understood that living like this I wouldn't have a future, so I asked whether I could stay at the shelter."

Shafiq managed to adapt to the shelter's clearly structured routine and is now about to finish high school. In the future, he wants to study business or join the merchant marines.

"Then I'll be able to travel and see the world," he said.

NGO workers in Mumbai said they have shifted their strategy in working with street children. Earlier they focused on basic needs – food, clothing, shelter. Now, these programs focus on the children’s long-term development by keeping them in school and preparing them for adult life.

"It's not about collecting children from the street anymore. They would stay a few days and run away again," Salesian Father Jesu Robinson told

"Today we only take boys who really engage in a regulated daily routine and set new goals for their future," he said.

Some NGOs have also discovered a new target group for helping street children, their parents. Contrary to popular perception, many street children are not runaway kids like Shafiq. This is also a result of the new study in Mumbai. Nearly 65 percent of the street kids surveyed lived with their families in temporary structures.

"We can only change the mindset of these children when the parents realize that they must change, too," said Brother Joseph Sebastian, head of St Catherine of Siena Orphanage and School in Mumbai.

"We tell parents, who ask us to take care of their children, that we expect them to look for work, wear decent clothes and deposit a little money every month for their children in an account that we create for them."

In return the institution offers street children not only dormitory-style residence and education, but also psychological counseling, sports facilities, professional dance lessons and life-skill courses.

In a few weeks, Shafiq, now 17, will be moving into a new Mumbai apartment with some other residents from the shelter. Because he is ready to further his education, the shelter encouraged and assisted him in finding a new place so that he could live on his own.

Shafiq said he’ll always consider the Salesian shelter his home.

"I'm proud to be a Don Bosco boy," he said.

"We all are working hard to become good people. On the street you're a nobody, in the shelter I found respect for the first time in my life."

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