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“We had one young man who was given a life sentence with no legal representation and no jury. He was put on death row at 17.” Vicky Ferguson, Glad's House

Our partner Glad’s House supports children and young people living on the streets of Mombasa by providing them with food, healthcare, education and, crucially, adults they can trust. Here, Vicky Ferguson from Glad’s House describes how these children and young people are rounded up and imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of being homeless – and what Glad’s House is trying to do about it.

“Decision-makers talk about our children and young people like they are worthless, troublesome vermin. When the governor orders the municipal security ‘to clean the streets’, what he means is ‘arrest as many children as you can’. He's talking about them like they are rubbish when they are actually children in need of support.

Currently children and young people are put in prison for the ‘crime’ of being homeless. There are mass round ups, with county security forces turning up in the night and grabbing as many children as they can - 50 or 60 or more. Other times they’ll catch one or two children at a time and make up charges like ‘loitering’ or ‘being in a place where drugs are used’. We see children as young as six getting caught like this.

Children get taken to a juvenile remand home. Often they’re placed on a care and protection order, but there’s no child protection unit in Mombasa so children under this order are kept in prisons. Others are ordered home, but we know that they’ve made an active decision to leave their family home because it’s not safe.

We see a cycle of street, prison, home, street, prison, home. That cycle is so destructive to a young person’s wellbeing. Every time they go through it there’s more trauma, more abandonment, more failure.

We have one young man who’s 23 and he’s been incarcerated 27 times. I asked him, “Why is it always you that’s arrested?” He said, “It’s because I’m HIV positive. I can’t run as quickly.” That’s the reality of their lives – it’s how fast you can run. And they’re running from the men and women that should be keeping them safe.

I’ve never met a child or young person who has gone through the legal process with legal representation. We had one young man given a life sentence with no lawyer and no jury. He was charged with ‘robbery with violence’ and put on death row at 17. We didn’t know where he was and we eventually found him in prison when he was 24. We got him out, but the damage done will stay with him forever. We can’t unpick that trauma. He’s back on the street and he’s very violent, very angry, very hopeless. It’s incredibly sad to see. His freedom is a double-edged sword.

We’re now in all prisons in Mombasa so that every child and young person has a safe adult. We educate them about their rights so that next time they know to say, ‘I’d like a lawyer please’. We do sport and offer psychological and emotional support. And we provide care packs containing toothpaste, toothpaste, soap, loo roll, and sanitary products for girls.

I once picked up a young man from prison who hadn’t washed or brushed his teeth for the three months he’d been there. I’d never smelt anything like it. We couldn’t take him on public transport because no one would let him on. We had to walk him through the streets to find him somewhere to wash. A bar of soap – it sounds so simple but it changes everything for those young people. And it shows that someone cares about them.

The Kenyan government is in 50 billion dollars of debt. Unless there’s huge investment in education and social care, there will always be homeless children in Kenya. We’re a tiny charity - we can’t stop that. But what we can do is change the way the government reacts to these children and young people.

We want to see an end to mass rounds ups, to the criminalisation of children and young people and the violation of their rights. We know this is going to take years, if not decades, but we’ll get there in the end. We have to keep on fighting because if we don’t fight for our children and young people, who will?

To build our argument around the violation of children’s rights, we’re collecting data on their experiences within the criminal justice system. We’re looking at who has had legal representation, how many children are being placed in adult prisons and how many children aren’t being released when they have finished their sentence.

In 2016 we worked with 53 children and young people to create The Mombasa Resolution. It’s a list of demands to remind Kenya of its commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s entirely based on our children and young people’s experiences on the street. Their demands include better healthcare and education, legal representation in court and proper age assessments so that children don’t end up in adult prisons. We share the Mombasa Resolution as widely and as often as we can.

Challenging perceptions is so important – that’s why run workshops for key stakeholders in the county to try to change how they see homeless children. We encourage them to think about the context of a child who has found themselves on the streets - what has pushed them there? We look at their inbuilt stigma and then we ask some of our young people to share their experiences about what life on the streets really looks like.

This is the moment where 'street children' become real people with feelings, thoughts, hopes and dreams. It is so powerful when they look the men and women who have been the cause of the systemic abuse they have suffered in the eyes and call them out on it. It has a huge impact on both sides.”

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