What goes through your mind when you pass them on the street?
Many of us who are lucky enough to have a dinner ready after coming home from school, a comfortable bed to lie in at night, and parents who support us financially, probably wouldn’t understand what it feels like to spend the coldest night of the year covered in a cardboard box or trying to make some money by begging on the side of the road.
But youth homelessness is a serious problem all over the world. In North America, the stereotype is that these youth choose to be vagrant or rebellious, but that way of looking at these youth is not a responsible one.
Some girls and boys who come from abusive families or who get involved in substance abuse may choose to run away from home. Others are thrown out of their home because they have no support from their family or community. They are forced to call the streets “home.”
Those youth are sometimes called “thrown-away youth” by experts. Many end up joining gangs, some get involved in the sex trade to finance their substance abuse or just to make ends meet on the street.
Many suffer serious psychological problems that need attention, but since homeless youth do not have access to proper health care or other necessities that other citizens enjoy, many meet their end quickly either through drugs or violence.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are more animal shelters in the US than human ones.
Indeed, that country has spent more money on the war in Iraq rather than on help for its citizens who live on its streets. And many other Western countries do the same. Almost 40% of the homeless in the United States are under 18. Every year, more than 2 million kids in America will face a period of homelessness and thousands more leaving the juvenile justice system, mental health facilities, and foster care homes.
In developing parts of the world, foreigners are warned of street kids — they will pick your pockets, harass you to buy wilted fruits and flower, and tug at your clothes for money. While their antics may seem annoying, their actual situation is nothing short of devastating.
Living in squalid slums in large cities, these kids live in homes that are riddled with disease and abuse.
With no chance of education or safe health care, many of these youth join gangs or join the sex trade. They are sometimes responsible for large numbers of their siblings, all of them living on the street or in dirty quarters and forced into crime.
Compared to the West, the streets of Africa are harsher and with the majority of the population in poverty, these youth’s numbers are starker.
Even though each group has its own challenges, African homeless youth also have to deal with war-torn societies and HIV. Youth make up half of the population of Africa and it was estimated that 130,000 street kids live in Nairobi, Kenya, alone, in 2007. Many have to rummage for food and resort to drugs and violence to survive.
What Should Muslims Do?
Homeless shelters and organizations that work with homeless people always need people to join their efforts to find homes and work for those who are not fortunate to have any.
Homeless youth have a right to all the basic needs and services we enjoy as citizens of our countries.
Let’s begin with respect for those who have found themselves living on the street. A smile is charity, and if that’s all you can find to give, then give it, but do you really think that’s enough?
First published: June 2011