Why residential care?

Advantages of residential care based work

During the early 2000s, in earlier consultations on new children’s legislation, the ‘street children sector’ campaigned strongly for the recognition of ‘shelter based interventions’ to be included. What we had in mind was that children who had lived, worked or begged on the streets mostly had a such complex range of challenges to face, and deep trauma that needed skilled healing, that walk in residential care with a higher level of resourcing from a normal ‘children’s home’ was essential. When we first encountered the draft of the present Children’s Amendment Act [insert link], we found provision for Child and Youth Care Centres which included much of what we needed for children coming in from the streets, but a whole chapter regarding shelters for street children, with minimal services! Thus all South African children EXCEPT street children would have access to developmental and therapeutic care, but children who had been on the streets would have minimal services. This was clearly unjust and unconstitutional, so another round of hard work made sure that the specific needs of children who had lived, worked or begged on the streets would be addressed within the full provision of Child and Youth Care Centres.

The teething problems of new legislation is another topic in which we seek to work to continue to develop services that meet the real needs of real children.This includes the ongoing need for residential care based services for “street children in urban centres. [see  chapter 11 in book]. While preventative community based interventions are key in the long term, and while we invest our experience and skills in the Ukondla  programmes in Philippi for this reason, the need for safe residential space where a girl can immediately access nurture, healing, education, and guidance and from where her family can hear as soon as possible that she is OK, remain the core of work that prevent children from being drawn deeper into dangerous, but compelling ways of life on the streets.

Ironically, by the time when vigorous “City Improvement District” type security services were being rolled out in the Centre of Cape Town and Claremont, most of the girls who were coming to Ons Plek were choosing shelter and seeking help over shame and street life, and there were very few girls on the streets of the City Centre. Dynamics keep changing, and at present some girls may have been roaming subsistence economy trading areas, newer township shopping malls, and shebeens where the newly rich and tourists mingle, before coming to Ons Plek.

Should residential based services such as Ons Plek intake not move to these areas? We have often considered this. However, for one thing, we would have moved several times already as neighbourhoods and dynamics change. But at a more fundamental level, sadly also because of the demographically scarred urban lay-out in South Africa, a legacy of Apartheid’s ‘group areas’, it remains in the urban centre where outsider and outcast children can regroup more safely, where issues of race and origins can be bracketed while frightened adrenalin charged young bodies can receive nutrition, and fear and substance fogged young minds can return to learning and helping, and settle into the routines and rhythms of normal daily life.

Ons Plek has been fully inclusive since we opened in 1988. It was quite an art at that time! We had to juggle between the many welfare and education departments, while we quietly enabled children according to their need and not their race groups.

Being inclusive and accessible remains an art in different ways. It helps being somewhere where families from everywhere can cross the Parade and re-start the journey with their daughters.

As a Director of an urban shelter since 1989, I agree with many of the criticisms of residential based programmes. It depends on how the organisation is run as to whether the dangers of institutionalization can be avoided.

As that safe door, in the current situation where severe poverty still mars lives in many communites, small specialised residential units can be more effective in preventing children from becoming street children and in intervening to change their lives on a permanent basis than any other service.

   Having successfully prevented runaways from becoming street children, most girls are referred by community members when they first begin to sleep at a neighbour’s house – a pattern that often predates running away.Simply having a Child and Care Intake Centre at a strategic spot does not achieve prevention. The shelter staff must see developmental residential care based work as a method, a means to an end and not an end in itself. Staff firstly must be committed to returning children home as soon as both home and child are ready to do so and secondly use the time in residential care to impact on the children’s emotional, social and educational growth if possible. Thirdly, the Child and Youth Care Centre specializing in children from the streets, must be situated in an area easily accessible to families by public transport.


In conclusion, in the long term developmental community work is the ideal way to prevent the phenomenon of street children. But we cannot let the present generation of children fall through the cracks because of the ideals we are working towards. In the shifting dynamics of urban Cape Town, the central residential option with the full range of developmental and therapeutic services, education, family reunification and a community work component, remains effective, to which the lives of the girls who are at Ons Plek at any one time, and our work with their families, attest.