"Once I meet with my stepmother, I will kill her," says a 13-year-old vagrant boy Zhang Taoshuai, startling the staff at the Children's Protection and Education Center of Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province with his hatred.
Abandoned by his father and stepmother, Zhang had led a vagrant life for five years by asking passers-by for money or begging lovers to buy his roses.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs has recorded at least 150,000 children tramping the streets annually under the age of 16 in the past three years.
Growing numbers of vagrant children has resulted from a growing population of migrant workers, a climbing divorce rate and widening gaps between poor and rich, and rural and urban areas, experts said.
By selling flowers, scavenging for scrap food, begging, stealing or robbing, the homeless children can barely manage to keep their stomachs filled. Public security departments find that they have become a formidable reserve army of criminals.
Among China's 150,000 street children, 30 percent are girls and 10 percent are aged below 10, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. They are from areas like Hunan, Sichuan and Henan provinces and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The ministry has set up 128 shelters for street children across the nation, said Jiang Yue'e, vice-director of the Women and Children's Work Committee of the State Council.
However, these shelters can only provide accommodation for 70,000 children and most are badly staffed and stuck in financial crisis, lacking enough strength to ensure normal life and education for vagrant children, according to China Youth and Children Research Center.
Funding from public donations has joined in the charity cause, though not enough. Zhang Hongzhi, a senior citizen in Zhuozhou City in Hebei Province, set up a Children's Village with property he inherited last January. A total of 29 homeless children became his beneficiaries.
The government should spend more to protect vagrant children, while the social donation system should be improved to encourage more help from the public, said Liu Qilin, former vice-president of Soong Ching Ling Foundation set up by Madame Song's relatives in Beijing in 1982 to promote welfare of youth and children.
Like Zhang Taoshuai, a total of 140 migrant children have been received by the Children's Protection and Education Center of Shijiazhuang since March 2002. The local government invested over four million yuan (US$481,927) on the center, which can accommodate 300 people. The government pays a monthly subsidy of 150 yuan (US$18.07) for each child to cover their living cost.
Many residents in Shijiazhuang have also joined the effort to help vagrant children by acting as "weekend parents" for homeless children and bringing them home at weekends.
"This will help the children have a taste of family love," said Yang Jun, director of the center. At present, 11 children in the center have "weekend parents."
About 80 million to 100 million children are roaming around worldwide on urban streets, according to statistics from the United Nations Children's Fund.
(Xinhua News Agency November 16, 2003)