Located amongst the bustling streets of Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong district, since 2011, the Hub Saidek has been a place of refuge for homeless and vulnerable young people living on the city streets. Wayu, 20, came to Bangkok from the Eastern province, Isan, 12 years ago. He arrived as an eight-year old and has since been living on the streets. Wayu was introduced to the Hub, aged 12, by friends who, like him, lived in the surrounds of Hua Lamphong, the city’s largest rail station.
For Wayu and the other young people who spend time at Childline Thailand Foundation’s ‘drop in’ center, the Hub offers a much needed break from the difficult and often dangerous conditions that young people in streets situations face in the city. The young people can eat, wash, charge their phones, rest and socialize in a friendly and safe environment. Under 18s can stay overnight and trained staff provide advice, medical and social interventions.
The Hub however aims to provide far more than a brief escape from daily hardships. If they wish, young people can enter non-formal education at the Hub and upstairs there is a classroom equipped with stationary and computers. Talking to Wayu it becomes clear that the opportunity to educate oneself – a safe place to do your homework and get some help – is one of the main reasons he has been coming to the center for eight years. He hopes one day to study farming and raise livestock of his own. Crucially, the Hub allows children to form close relationships with other young people and staff. Wayu describes how for a long time he “did not like to talk to many people, especially adults” but that the staff at the Hub, always kind, sensible and listening, had helped him to “interact more with others”.
The staff at the Hub put their relationships with the children at the very heart of the work they do. Kaew, manager at the Hub since 2014, says that the staff “work according to the needs of the children” and that there is a need for more than just education and shelter, there is a “need for love, care and companionship”. Young people in street situations have often come from violent homes and face abuse, addiction and exploitation in their daily lives. The role of the staff as trusted adult confidants – someone who listens and cares – is thus extremely important. Kaew says that forming such close relationships is not quick or easy but, “when [the children’s] problems become discussions, when the walls begin to come down”, it is the most rewarding part of their work.
A child-centered approach:
Many shelters for Thailand’s significant population of vulnerable young people – there is an estimated 20,000 children living on the country’s streets – impose strict regimes upon young people. Corporal punishment is common and rules and regulations restrict freedom, opportunity and individuality. Such conditions has meant that many homeless children actively avoid shelters and run away from them when they can. Fon, 27, has volunteered at the Hub for three months and, homeless herself as a child, can attest to the counter-productive nature of many shelters for young people around the country. At 15, having been sent to a closed shelter on the coast, Fon ran away from the establishment, which she described as “allowing no freedom” and resembling a “jail”.
In contrast, Childline Thailand Foundation, at both their call center and the Hub, is driven by a child centered approach which places individuality at the heart of their work. The staff at the Hub, rather than imposing strict rules and timetables, attempt to guide young people in making their own decisions. As Kaew emphasized, the work at the Hub is guided by a “respect for (the young people’s) freedoms, children’s rights and dignity”. These freedoms include the freedom to plan their own days. The young people at the Hub are able to choose when they come and go, when they interact with others and when they enter informal education. This is not to say that there are not rules and violent or inappropriate behavior is met with a restriction of access to the Hub and it’s facilities.
Kaew notes that, while such approach is difficult at times, and considered a risk by others, the staff at the center have seen that it works. Young people respond to the climate of freedom, responsibility and advice and seek to improve their own situations. Young people are encouraged to see the consequences of their actions, both for themselves and others. Kawu uses the example of infectious diseases, which are common among the poor and homeless in Thailand. Young people are encouraged to acknowledge that ignoring such diseases, delaying a visit to a health care professional, will have potentially negative effects for themselves and those around them.
Gai, 14, is mother to a six-month old child. As we speak her child is across the table, babbling happily in the arms of staff member Oou. Gai has been living on and off the streets since she was four and began coming to the Hub after being introduced by a friend. The Hub helped Gai throughout her pregnancy and, since her child’s birth, Gai says she has learnt a lot about motherhood from the staff, as well as important information on sexual and reproductive health. In the future Gai hopes to be a P.E teacher.
Many of these children are without the documentation necessary to enter formal education and employment. This is where the callcentre can provide further help – by contacting the necessary authorities on behalf of the child in order and to guide through the administrative process. In this way the callcentre and the Hub work in tandem to ensure all young people are provided with the same opportunities to learn and develop.
The Hub makes a genuine difference in the lives of young people like Gai, Fon and Wayu. The center offers the children shelter, food and a space in which they can attend to their most basic needs. More importantly, the Hub is a space in which children and young people are able to develop important relationships, built on trust and care, with both staff members and other youths. They become part of a community and the community looks after its own. For children who have so often lacked stability and support in their lives, the benefit of such a space cannot be underestimated.