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The singing streets

/ 05:14 AM September 29, 2017

In the latter months of the year, when streets come alive with the dancing of holiday lights, a song climbs up into the jeepneys and knocks on car windows at traffic stops. The song is a coarse carol, a gravelly version of whichever Christmas theme is most repeated on the airwaves, invariably delivered in the rough voice of a young drifter whose palm is held out for change.

The holidays open up more hearts and purses; it’s somehow easier to give to child beggars at this time of year. It is also—as it is throughout the rest of the year—against the law. And since it is, what chance do these children actually stand?

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Though rarely implemented, the Anti-Mendicancy Law in the Philippines has been in effect since 1978. It prohibits both begging and giving alms, chiefly to prevent the exploitation of children and to promote the rehabilitation of mendicants who are minors.

On paper, the purposes of the law are noble, and it is indeed necessary to prohibit mendicancy if we are going to keep children off the streets. What is more necessary, however, are endeavors for their rehabilitation, but unfortunately, even that seems to come up short.

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Several years ago, I was part of a team that conducted a small case study of a local-government-run youth center. The kids we interviewed there were previously street urchins and labeled children in conflict with the law (CICL). According to their own admissions, some of them sniffed glue back when they were roaming, one stole a cell phone, and the rest simply got mixed with the wrong crowd. None was more than 17; the youngest was 5.

Eventually, a number of them revealed to us that they would much prefer the streets than the center. In fact, some of them had escaped once or twice, were tracked down and picked back up. Others were still out there, yet to be caught again—“caught” being the children’s own choice of word.

Out there, they said, they were freer; here in the center, they felt stifled. Of course. A home could give them more than enough food and clothes and books, but to youngsters whose formative years had been spent roaming a world without limits, any kind of fence would be prison. And so, for those kids in the youth center, intervention is something to run away from. The streets sing to them, too.

I cannot say that this is a comment on how adequate the center’s facilities were or how they were utilized. Material adequacy is perhaps a different story (and there is much to be said there, too). What the children’s words seemed to ultimately point to is a shortcoming on how we understand them.

That they preferred to be out in the jungle of speed and smoke, to literally beg for survival, instead of staying where they were safe and fed and clothed—that tells something about how much (or how little) our programs and services are in touch with the target beneficiaries.

Aside from the material, there are mental and emotional facets to rehabilitation. It is apparent here that the first challenge is to design our rehabilitation programs so that these are mentally and emotionally suited for those who have spent most of their lives in the open; so that these beneficiaries are eased instead of forced in their transition; so that intervention does not seem to them a prison.

Certainly, our social welfare and development agencies have services that are geared toward these goals, though evidently, there is plenty of room to improve here. Until the last child is guided away from the lure of the streets, there is always more work to be done.

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The Anti-Mendicancy Law is a first step in ushering our youths on to better paths than the highways they traverse. When this law is implemented as it ought to be, the next step should be ready: rehabilitation that welcomes instead of repels.

Something from our little case study told me that this was, in truth, what the children were begging for the most. Something in the way they told us that they wanted to become policemen or soldiers when they grew older. What they needed was neither begged-for alms nor forced fences, but a transition to firmly but gently lead them to where they really wanted to go. And that, for sure, is not to keep singing in the streets.

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