As dusk fell on the northern Chinese city of Zhengzhou, a 13-year-old boy huddled against the February cold on a steam grate, waiting for another aimless day to break. Without a place to call home, Zhou Ning made a bed out of a cotton quilt spread out on the pavement in front of the Henan provincial capital's railway station.
When the street crept back to life amid the first horns of passing vehicles, Zhou got dressed, folded the quilt into a corner and relieved himself a few yards away in full view of the public. He then dodged the traffic and made his way towards a back alley foodstall for what he called breakfast a bowl of watery soup spiced up with chilli and soy-sauce and two deep-fried dough sticks, all at a cost of one yuan (US$12 cents). Seemingly content with the meal, he swiftly fished out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, lit one and puffed his way into another desperate, purposeless day.
This was a snapshot of a street child's life as captured by a CCTV news programme on the plight of homeless children.
Zhou Ning is one of 150,000 homeless children roaming the country's urban streets, according to a Ministry of Civil Affairs estimate.
Children leave their homes for different reasons. Poverty is presumably the greatest single cause of homelessness, with children of rural and migrant families escaping from the harsh conditions in the rural areas. Others are survivors of dysfunctional families, domestic violence and traumatic abuse.
Street children are exposed to violence, abuse, exploitation and poor sanitation. Many resort to crime like Zhou Ning, who survives on petty theft.
The traditional approach to managing street children has been to pick them up, place them in a shelter for a while and then send them back to their families. But many children end up on the streets again because their families are devoid of either the financial ability or sense of responsibility to care for them.
Assisted by the United Nations Children's Fund, China has devised a comprehensive rehabilitation model for street children that comprises drop-in centres, university student volunteers' out-reach programmes and residential and foster care projects.
Zhengzhou is one of the first few Chinese cities to introduce foster care families that house and feed street children and provide them with counselling and healthcare.
But to enable these children to grow up to become contributing members of society, we need to go beyond what we are now doing. The ultimate answer to the social integration of street children lies in education.
Every child on the street has the same right to education as every other school-age youth in this country. That is their fundamental right.
Given the developmental delays experienced by street children when compared to their peers in a normal schooling system, we should strive for an alternative regime that will create a nurturing environment in which street children could receive their education along with counselling, mental and physical health services and maybe even meals, clothes and other supplies.
Such schools could help reduce the stigma of homelessness seen in mainstream institutions, too, and prevent taunts and teasing from classmates.
Education may have different purposes for different people. For street children, the purpose of education should be to heal the wounds inflicted by homelessness, give them the knowledge and skills they will need in adulthood to earn a living, and instil in them moral and cultural qualities that are essential for them to become contributing members of society.
(China Daily March 3, 2006)