Sep 26, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

Shelter from the rain

Published: Sep 22, 2007
Funding cuts and apathy make life difficult for 2000 street kids in Semarang.

Jane Eaton 

It is a sweltering hot Friday morning and I'm on a mission, but first I must go and visit some friends at the local bus stop. 'Hey guys, what's up?' Hmmmm cool response. 'What's wrong?' Silence. Definitely a cool response. 'Are you mad at me?' Kneeling down I look for some explanation of the cold shoulder. And then I see the teardrops, pause before they fall. My heart shatters. Others notice the tears. A small crowd of onlookers quickly assembles. After the apologies and hugging I finally convince him to take a break and come for a ride with me.

There are now over 2000 street kids in Semarang. Yogie, the young boy with the tough exterior is typical of the kids who visited the shelter. Initially when the drop-in centre first started there were around 10 to 15 boys residing at the shelter. The lack of social services in this, Brisbane's sister city (but bigger!), has meant that numbers grew quickly.

The shelter was established in early 1997 as a joint project between the United Nations Development Program, the Indonesian Department of Welfare, and local charities. Shelters were set up in all major cities with enough funding for two years of operation.

Needless to say, funds here were quickly 'dispersed'. In early November, only seven months after it started, the Semarang shelter closed its doors.

Four of us pile into a becak (pedicab) and head off to find the elusive Ibu Indrah, the proprietor of a now empty shop space at the back of the market. One young boy, who sleeps in the market, suggested we rent the shop space as a safe place for a couple of the kids to live. The boy at the market was actually sleeping in a small cavity between the roof of the market building and the top of the shop - a space 50cm high.

After the usual false starts we finally locate Ibu Indrah in her new premises. Eventually I'm allowed to enter. The boys are too 'dirty' to be allowed in and are asked to wait outside. 'Well it's worth a shot', I think to myself. 'She'll probably say no, but I can't come this far and back out now, especially not in front of the boys.'

Edi and I put forward our offer to rent the place so that the children will have somewhere safe and out of the rain to live. After some hesitation she decides that we may use the shop for free, as the building will be demolished in the coming months.

With the precious keys in hand we pile back into the becak and head back. This time the ride is much more cheerful as we boast to the becak driver of our success. We agree to meet later in the day to start cleaning the place up.

Back to the streets

Whether the original shelter will open again and what form it will take is still unclear. A meeting was held recently with rumours flying thick and fast that the shelter would re-open. It has since been made clear to the kids that this isn't going to happen. The high publicity event was perhaps just a political manoeuvre. One claim is that an ambitious local Welfare Department head was trying to impress, another is that the local partners were trying to cover up the shelter's closure from visiting dignitaries.

For a project bedded in altruistic motives, politics and corruption has sullied the street kids' chance at shelter. The situation first began to disintegrate in July of 1997, when the shelter's guardian quit in disgust at the corrupt management practices of the local Welfare Department.

Without any programme officers to monitor the shelter, local thugs moved in, and the children moved back onto the streets.

Another shelter in Semarang, where many of the children used to live before they were forced to move to this government sponsored shelter, had also been forced to close its doors after being attacked in a midnight raid by local thugs. There was nowhere to go, except back to the streets.

Why is there so much apathy and resentment against street children? It is unclear. The national authorities as well as regional and local authorities have little patience for the plight of street children.

But the problem isn't going to disappear through lack of attention, or as sometimes happens, physical intimidation. Around 15,000 people are losing their jobs every day in Indonesia. As the economy contracts so too does the ability of the family to afford their children's welfare.

In August the Education Minister revealed that only 54% of school aged children had actually enrolled, leaving 46% of Indonesian children out there in the 'real world' with the grown ups. It is a lot easier to intimidate and exploit a child than an adult. They make excellent workers in this period of international competitiveness and free trade.

It is now lunchtime and the heat is oppressive. The five of us meet outside the shop which the kids will soon call home. We're armed with brooms and detergent and are attracting the stares of passers by. The shop is located above the market's rubbish dump. On a day as hot as this one the smell is nauseating. However, like the first rule of real estate says - location, location, location.

We jiggle the key in the lock and push open the door to find a dark cave tangled with spider webs, rats, cockroaches and other bugs, not to mention a number of rotting cat carcasses. At least 5cm of dust covers the floor. How long has this place been empty?

We rip down the curtains and throw out the old magazines and newspapers carpeting the floor. The garbage scavengers come and pick out redeemable pieces of clothing and furniture. For four hours that day we clean, sweep, scrub, wash and sweat. Needless to say with enthralled onlookers adding their two cents worth where they felt necessary. How to clean the cat's imprint off the tiles - suggestions anyone?

Earlier this year research by the Jakarta based Atma Jaya University revealed that within the first three months of living on the streets in Indonesia children are sexually abused at least once.

The short and long term effects of this environment on the children is frightening. The International Labour Organisation has warned that the prostitution/ sex industry accounts for up to 14% of Gross National Product in Southeast Asian countries. This was estimated before the crisis took hold. Indonesia's sex industry depends on a constant supply of vulnerable children. A third of prostitutes are under age. Where do they come from? From previously stable families who no longer have choices.

The future

It is important to look beyond the immediate fiscal implications of the economic crisis. Much more is at stake than balance sheets and foreign reserves. The negative effects of the economic crisis are rupturing the very fabric of society.

What are the long-term consequences of having half a generation grow up in poverty on the streets, being used and using others to survive? What life skills are they acquiring and which of these will they be passing on to their children in 10 to 15 years time? Is this the 'lost generation', without hope and without a future? Will this generation be able to regain a sense of social structure not based on the survival of the fittest mentality of the streets?

What will be the face of Indonesian society in ten years time, when this generation emerges into the spotlight? Endless questions with no immediate answer. The problem is only made worse by the closing of social services, like the Semarang shelter.

We buy some straw mats for the floor, and sit down to congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We order drinks, and dream of how we will use the place for a part time informal school or drop-in centre. How this will be a safe house for the little kids, where no big bullies are allowed to beat us up or bring their girlfriends.

As we dream and plan, the rain finally begins to fall. At last the rainy season has come and the temperature has dropped. Lucky we found this place just in time, no more nights under a wet leaky roof.

Postscript: The rain kept falling that night until the city was covered with water. Edi, being the true gentleman that he is, escorted me through the flooded markets out to the flooded streets in the pouring rain. After paying an exorbitant price for a taxi ride, I finally crashed into bed; and stayed there for the next three days crippled with dysentery. The old market building was burnt in a suspected arson attack in late September.

Jane Eaton was a volunteer in Semarang who now lives near Brisbane, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999

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