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The homeless, street children take over Marina Mall street for shelter

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Over 30 people, all of them at the mercy of the icy weather and strong winds. This is just some of the people who came to spend the night at the street by the Marina Mall at the time we visited. We were told others didn’t come to sleep that night. Perhaps, they found some other temporary spot for that night.

They were horizontally lined up on cardboards which have been laid on the bare floor. The boys, mainly in their teenage were sleeping without a blanket to cover themselves, pillows to lay on or any protective gears to prevent them from the cold.  Some had tucked their hands in their shirts, while others lay very close to each other to keep warm.

While some of these homeless individuals seem not to have a good night’s sleep because of obvious reasons like the discomforts of sleeping on the streets, attacks by security personnel, robbery, among others, we also noticed that others were ostensibly deeply asleep without a hint of our presence.

Some of them woke up immediately upon hearing the subtle screech of our car as we pulled over to where they were sleeping, others were tossing and turning, unsure whether they noticed our presence, while the rest were motionless throughout our entire presence.

Thirteen year old Kofi, just like all the others, that’s what he said his name is, was the first to jump to his feet when our saloon car’s light fell on them. His alertness is as a result of some terrible experiences in the four years he has been sleeping on the streets, mainly from security personnel who guard the properties around, from the police who occasionally organize swoops and other imminent dangers.

He told us that apart from the natural conditions they face while sleeping there, the security people also harass them. They beat them up, pour water on them, and throw things at them just to prevent them from sleeping there. “The security guards at the Marina Mall comes to pour water on us, there were some fans fixed here, we were the reason they came to remove it because it was driving mosquitoes away from us. We were a bit more comfortable because we didn’t have mosquitoes biting us as they do now. They hit us with their sticks to the extent that you sometimes can’t walk after their encounter. For several months I have not been able to walk properly because of the last attack,” he said.

Kofi’s story

Kofi says he came from Botwiase in the Central Region, to live on the streets of Accra at the age of nine. He left home when he dropped out of school and followed his friends to the capital.  Even though his parents are currently alive, he doesn’t want to live with them at Botwiase because life is tough there according to him. He said, his parents located him in Accra and picked him up back to his hometown, but he didn’t stay and returned to the streets.

He told us that apart from the natural conditions they face while sleeping there, the security people also harass them. They beat them up, pour water on them, and throw things at them just to prevent them from sleeping there.

Kofi told us that he wants to continue his education and become a footballer, but he doesn’t see the realisation of that dream if he remains in his village, that is why he came to Accra. He said he and some of his friends were picked up by officials from the Social Welfare Department, and were sent to a shelter at Madina, but they left after some few days because promises made to them were not kept. The Department promised to send him to school and to put him through learning a trade.

He now begs and washes car windshields on the streets to make money, and the money he gets, he invests in his shoe polish selling business.

As we engage Kofi, we could hear one of the boys frantically complaining about his stolen GH¢7. Unfortunately for them, this is common – theft among them. They admitted that most of the boys who hassle on the streets are criminals. When night falls and they are asleep, they come to steal their monies, dresses, shoes or any other thing they can lay hands on.

We got closer to Morgan, and he shared his story.

Morgan’s story

Morgan is an 18-year-old man who has lived on the streets for seven years, particularly the Marina Mall area. He migrated from Kumasi to Accra to look for a job. He said life was tough when he arrived in Accra so he followed friends to sleep on the streets. His parents live in Kumasi, he calls them occasionally but fails to tell them about his life in Accra.

Just like the others, he has been taken in by the social welfare officers to a shelter but left few days after because he claims there’s no future there if stays. Morgan desires to learn a trade in the future, but he has to mobilise some funds first, he says.

Isaac’s story

Isaac is 19 years old, and has lived on the streets for five years. He ran from his village in the Volta Region after committing an offense he refused to tell us about, and wouldn’t tell us the name of the village either. When he got to Accra, he met some people who introduced him to the streets.  He was in school in JHS 1 when he left home, and has not been to his village since his arrival nor set foot in a classroom again. He begs for alms and still desires to go back to school. He said, his father who is still alive has not looked for him since he left home.

The sleeping location of these young people and some adults is just a few metres away from the Airport Police Station. Occasionally, the police picks them up, detains them for a few hours, and then they are released back onto the streets.

Speaking to ghanabusinessnews.com, the Airport District Police Commander, Chief Superintendent Eric Asiedu, said the situation of streetism is worrying and poses serious threats to those engaged in it, and the public as well, but his outfit is overwhelmed and they cannot solve it alone.

He indicated that most of the boys are engaged in criminal activities, unfortunately when they are arrested and sent to court, they are given lenient punishment like fines, which does not serve as deterrent enough.

He also expressed concerns over the dangers they are exposed to while living and working and sleeping on the streets. The issue of the boys sleeping at the Marina Mall is not his only concern since they are just a little fraction of the entire streetism problem.

Occasionally, the police picks them up, detains them for a few hours, and then they are released back onto the streets.

He said even though his outfit has repeatedly detained them, they are forced to release them because they can’t jail them, and don’t have the requisite resources to take care of them while in their custody.

In other to end this menace, Chief Superintendent Asiedu is asking for a collaborated effort, where all stakeholders will be involved.  He said, the police alone cannot fight the menace because it is a national canker which needs to be given keen attention.

“I feel that we have to address it holistically, so that all stakeholders must be onboard so that we can address it. That is why I took it to the assembly and the assembly is taking a keen look at it,” he said.

The Commander who has been at his current post for the past one and half years, began fighting the canker of streetism six months ago, he said.

He confirmed that, some of them are criminals who attack pedestrians, drivers, and passengers to rob them of their possessions.

“They attack innocent people in traffic, especially during the rush hours they go out there, and then try to attack people, and most of them have been arrested and sent to court. As and when we find it necessary, we go there to arrest,” he indicated.

“Two weeks ago, we went to Fiesta Royale and arrested two of them, they were sent to court and they were fined. It is likely they will come to the same place again and go and commit another crime, so it is not a matter of we arresting them and sending them to court, but what do we do as a country to solve it holistically? That is my problem. As far as I am concerned we are trying our possible  best to do what we can, but I think it is not enough because the police alone cannot be blamed,” he added.

He blamed the public for encouraging them to stay on the streets because they continually give alms and gifts to these homeless and beggars, who are motivated to stay on the streets.

To reduce the number of the over 4,900 street beggars and homeless people in Accra alone, he advised the general public to stop giving them alms or gifts to put them out of business. According to him, they prefer to be on the streets because they find it very lucrative, and they make between GH¢2,000 to GH¢5,000 monthly.

“Some of them I spoke to have houses, they have taxis through the alms they solicit from the pedestrians. So if the person feels if he or she comes to the street for a month, and he gets like GH¢3,000 or GH¢4,000 or GH¢5,000 a month, and then you arrest him or her and take him to court, and he comes back to the streets because he was fined, he finds it not deterrent enough to stay at home, he would want to come back,” he said.

He indicated that, some NGOs and philanthropists also use these people to get more funding from their international partners in their own interest. He advised them to stop the practice and rather give to those who are already in a shelter or give their donations to the appropriate authorities if they genuinely want streetism to end.

He also cautioned parents who rent their children to assist beggars on the streets to desist from the act.

The Department of Social Welfare is as handicapped as the police administration, perhaps, even worse. Inasmuch as they have dedicated staff members ready to work, funding is a major challenge. As and when the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection releases funds, they get back to work to get some of these people off the street and put them in any of the two government shelters located only in Accra.

He blamed the public for encouraging them to stay on the streets because they continually give alms and gifts to these homeless and beggars, who are motivated to stay on the streets.

Mr Seth Appeagyei of the Department, confirmed that they don’t immediately deliver their promises to them, however, he justified it.  He said, only about 30 per cent of them offer true information about themselves, and without that, they can’t do much to help.

Also, because they lack funds, they are unable to carry out exercises of raiding the streets regularly.

It can be recalled that in 2017, the then Gender, Children and Social Protection Minister, Otiko Afisa Djaba launched a campaign dubbed, “Operation Get off the Street for a Better Life” in order to rid the country’s streets and roadsides of hawkers and beggars. That exercise even though is ongoing, has also slowed because of unavailability of funds.

The phenomena, according to Mr. Appeagyei is a huge burden on the Department, but they are currently cash-trapped and can’t work effectively.

He said, with the help of the police, they have sent most of the boys who sleep at the Marina Mall to the government shelters, but usually they leave soon after they are sent there. He said about 20 of them were sent to the shelter during the first exercise.

“We have made frantic efforts to take them from the place or relocate them to our state owned shelters. The first incident started around 2017 where the Acting Director, the Director of the Department with some officials went round in the night, and we saw these boys, we picked them to our shelter at Osu where we sensitized them about the dangers of living on the streets. In fact, one of the boys was coughing severely and we took him to the hospital, after we advised them that the outside is not good for them, so they should remain in the shelter for their protection because they would be given food, they will have warm clothes and can have their bath for free and anything they need,” he said.

“They were there for some time, lo and behold, these children left the shelter. Because they have not come into contact with the law, they are not prisoners, so we cannot inhibit their movement or trample on their rights,” he explained.

Perhaps, the little the department can do which does not involve much money is to sensitize them through their information vans. “Every now and then we do public sensitization and some sort of orientation. We go round, we go to their spots where we know we can find them, educate them, sensitize them, telling them the street is not the best place,” he added.

Usually when these kids are taken from the street, they are psyched psychosocially to analyse them for information about their background for essential help to be provided to them by the Department, according to Mr Appeagyei.

The Ghana Education Service (GES), according to him has a role to play. He suggested that they can come on board by helping place those who want to go to school in schools.

Apart from taking them to the shelters, they also liaise with opinion leaders of the communities where they come from, their parents and families to help integrate them back in their societies.

“Some of them who came here due to familiar problems, we were able to trace their families and reunited them with their families. And whenever we are doing this, we don’t do it alone, we include stakeholders in their communities for their reintegration. And we are about doing more, but the department is cash-strapped,” he noted.

There is no specific fund set aside for this project, any money the directorate releases to them is what the department works with, he said.

He explained that, because these people make a lot of money from begging, they are not content with what is given to them at the shelter, so they leave. Also, because the Department doesn’t have enough funds to keep those who want to school in schools, they also get bored and they leave as well.

Mr Appeagyei, just like Chief Superintendent Asiedu, also expressed worry over the  challenges and threats the activities of these homeless people pose to the country.

Aside the robbery they commit mostly at knife point, and drugs they do, he fears there is a looming danger,of some of them being recruited into extremist groups to engage in atrocious crimes since they are vulnerable, and can easily be enticed when offered monies.

“They also do drugs, and even one danger which is looming and we have not spoken much about is, they can be recruited to join the extremist terrorist groups,” he warned.

“If you are not aware that giving and receiving of alms is an offence, then be referred to the Beggars and Destitutes Act – 1969 (NLCD 392), where it is stated clearly that one can be prosecuted for engaging in the act. Therefore, if one feels led to support the homeless, he or she must direct it to the national trust fund, or send it to the Social Welfare Department,” he said, adding that, “if this law is enforced, the problem will end.”

The Ghana Education Service (GES), according to him has a role to play. He suggested that they can come on board by helping place those who want to go to school in schools.

“It is good we also speak to GES, who should have a lot of classrooms for these people because sometimes what makes them come back on the street is that, you know it is only the government schools they can attend, when they go and they are told the classrooms are full, then eventually they would have to come back to the street. So if they can have classrooms to them,” he said.

Life on the streets

To survive on the streets, the calm and docile have to toughen up to endure the harsh conditions.

Medical care, or hospital attendance is alien to these people who live on the streets. When they fall sick, they depend on natural healing or self medication or through some rare external intervention.

“As for me when I fall sick, I always buy ‘Gebedol’ to take. For about two weeks now I have been sick and all I take is ‘Gebedol'”, says Isaac.

They use public toilets and bathrooms for a fee of GH¢1.

They don’t keep their belongings with them on the streets for fear of being stolen by others on the streets. So they keep them with friends around who do not sleep on the streets, and anytime they want to change clothes, they go to that person.

They also leave their mobile phones, watches and other gadgets with their keepers when they want to retire to bed, and then go for them in the morning.

The weather and its associated problems are not the only problem they have to deal with, but the security personnel who unexpectedly harass, pounce on them to beat them, thieves, rapists, and other dangers.

Marina Mall makes unsuccessful attempts to remove them

Meanwhile managers at the Marina Mall say, the situation is a big challenge to them, as all efforts to remove them amicably have failed.

They admitted that once in a while, they task their security personnel to drive them out of the place, but the boys rather attack the Marina security personnel by pelting them with stones and other objects.

Mr Collins Yaw Mensah, Operations Manager at the Mall said, one of the supervisors expressed fear the boys can ambush and attack him when he’s alone.

“This issue is a big challenge to us, we have tried several times to get them out of there. We have used our security on several occasions. In the process of trying to sack them, to remove them from the premises, they will throw stones. There was one time one of the guards got injured, another guy was also injured, and they can damage someone’s car, you know a lot of cars are parked on our premises so that is also another fear,” he said.

He complained about the criminal activities they engage in on their premises and around the airport enclave.

“One of them came into one of the offices to steal a laptop and we took him to the police station, but the police said they can’t handle it because he is a juvenile, so it’s actually a big challenge,” he said, adding, “this issue is not only affecting Marina Mall, it is affecting the whole airport enclave, this place is a security zone.”

They are also upset about how the homeless litter the place and leave the rubbish for their workers  to clean up.

Afua Obeng, Center Manager at the Mall, expressed worry and called on authorities to address the situation soon. She said they should find a sustainable activity to engage all of them, because helping just one or two out of the lot, will not solve the situation, because they seem to stick together.

However, the Mall’s management says it is planning on constituting a response team to deal with the situation since efforts by the police and the Airport City Association has not yielded any visible result.

By Asabea Akonor

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