View From the Wall

When Can I Go Home?

Caring for China's Homeless Children

Mid-January in Zhengzhou, the temperature dipped to -7C after a snowstorm. Chuan, a 13 year-old boy from the far west province of Gansu, was rummaging through a trash bin in a corner inside the Zhengzhou train station. His face was covered in soot; he was wearing an ill-fitted, filthy cotton jacket, lightweight trousers and a pair of tattered tennis shoes. The previous night, he had stowed away on a coal car headed for Zhengzhou. Cold and starving, he searched frantically for anything edible. Alone in a strange city, without money and not knowing a soul, Chuan wondered aimlessly.

Chuan has no memory of his father who left home for work many years ago. Then, a few years ago, his mother divorced his father and Chuan went to live with his grandmother. When his grandmother died in the summer of 2003, Chun ran away and began his life on the street. A large nylon bag contained everything he owned. All his life, he had not known love from his parents or the fun of being a kid. Instead, two and a half years on the streets had taught him the harshness of life. He had heard that Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, was the largest railroad hub in China and thought that perhaps his luck would take a better turn there.

Chuan's story is not unique. Homeless children from everywhere wander the streets of China's big cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Ragged and dirty, they roam about hectic train and bus stations, stroll among shoppers in bustling shopping centers, drift from quiet city parks to dark underpasses to all-night clubs and Internet cafes. At night, curled up in abandoned buildings, concrete cylinders, bridge arches or public restrooms, these children wrap themselves in plastic bags to keep warm. When hungry, they look for scraps of food in restaurant garbage containers. There are no adults looking after or protecting them. Basic health care and hygiene are nonexistent. Falling victim to scams or discrimination, being yelled at or chased away are all commonplace occurrences. They fend for themselves by begging, collecting trash, working as cheap labor or even committing petty crimes. In the shadow of skyscrapers, they barely survive. They are the "homeless children."

The term "homeless children" is controversial in itself as society still cannot agree on its definition. According to a publication by UN Children's Fund in 1998, the Chinese government officially defines homeless children as, "Youth or children who are under the age of 18, have separated from the supervision of family members or guardians, have lived on the streets for more than 24 hours and are without basic living and safety conditions."

Based on this definition, the Chinese government statistics show that there are approximately 150,000 homeless children in China each year. However, according to experts on this subject, the actual number is much higher. Eighty-three percent of these children come from the rural countryside and seventeen percent are from towns and cities. The majority of them are between the ages of eight and fifteen. Most are illiterate or semi-literate.

The root causes for this social phenomenon are complex. Conventional wisdom generally recognizes four reasons that cause children to become homeless. First is economics. Currently in China there are 48 million people below poverty level. Lacking family income, many children of laid-off workers or poor farmers are forced out onto the streets. Sometimes even parents, along with their children, become beggars to stay alive. Second are family issues. A large number of children become homeless after their parents' deaths, divorce or remarriage. For others it is family unconcern, abandonment or breakdown. Third is academics. There are children who leave home to escape the pressure, by parents and teachers, of obtaining good grades and the consequence of poor grades. Lastly there is abuse. Some children leave due to abuse at home while others are abandoned due to deformity of some kind. Statistics show that approximately 100,000 children are abandoned each year in China, the majority of them handicapped or girls. This number continues to rise.

Faced with the enormous challenge of properly caring for and educating homeless children, in the 1990s the Chinese government created the "Homeless Children Protection Center" with shelters nationwide. Ten metropolises were included in the initial phase of the program. By mid-2003 the number of centers had grown to 128. This growth shows that the problem of homeless children has captured the attention of the media, the general public and the government at all levels.

In 1992, the shelters in the city of Shanghai took in over 3,000 homeless children. From 1990 to August 1992, the city of Shenyang took in 1,600 children under the age of 16, the youngest being four years old. Another midsize city received 112 children in 1996 and 203 in 1998. The average number of children coming into shelters each month in Sichuan Province in 2003, 2004 and 2005 was 449, 970 and 1298 respectively. Those same years, shelters in Guandong Province assisted 330, 626 and 853 children. The upward trend is widespread.

If you include those children who spend the day on the streets while their parents are at work, but who return home at night, the number of "homeless children" is well over 300,000. Of those who have actually received some kind of service from the shelters, about seventy percent, or 105,000, are boys; thirty percent, or 45,000, are girls. The vast majority of these children is either illiterate or has had only an elementary level education. They are from provinces such as Hunan, Sichuan, Henan, Shendong, Anhui, Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan and Xinjiang. Cities with influxes of children are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang.

Only a fraction of all homeless children receive assistance. Over seventy percent choose to survive on their own. A Henan Province official says, "We can estimate the number of homeless children by the total number of cases we assist each year. On the average, we serve about 100,000 individuals annually, and about ten percent of them are children or about 10,000."

Homeless children have almost become a class by themselves. Threat of death, disease and abuse as well as exposure to the elements day in and day out make them gaunt and emaciated. However, the impact of homelessness on their childhood is much more than physical. Their innocence is replaced by a survival instinct that operates regardless of laws or morals, and in time, they become a "bad element" of society, detested by other city dwellers. Alcohol, brawls, prostitution, theft and scams soon surround themthey are sheep who learned to be wolves and become a menacing social problem.

Statistics show that eighty-three percent of the homeless children in the city of Guangzhou have committed some type of petty crime. In another city, between March 2002 and October 2003, of all the homeless children who had gone through the system, seventy-five percent had committed theft, sixty-two percent regularly stole, and for forty-six percent stealing and mugging were the only means to obtain money. Not only their safety and well-being is in jeopardy, but the stability of the entire society is being jeopardized as well.

In March 1991, Premier Li Peng, speaking on behalf of the Chinese government, solemnly assured the rest of the world that "the Chinese government will make every effort to improve the living, safety and developmental condition of the Chinese children." Fifteen years have passed, and the problem of homeless Chinese children has increased and worsened. Presently, the 120 shelters across the country are only able to accommodate 70,000 children. The approximately150,000 children on the streets far exceed the shelters' capacities.

In addition, shelters in all cities face serious funding shortages as well as crises in space, facilities and human resources.

The Chinese government has repeatedly held summits and called on administrations at all levels to fund more agencies and update existing ones. In spite of the intention of making government efforts more effective, real answers are hard to come by. One crucial error is that the government has monopolized the solution and has kept all private organizations out of the so-called "charity market." Vast private human and financial resources are systematically rejected. The Chinese government has always viewed nongovernmental and religious organizations with excessive suspicion and held them under strict control, not allowing them the freedom they require to be effective.

Nevertheless, this mode of total governmental control and monopoly is beginning to soften. After more than twenty years of reform, the Chinese government is gradually realizing that it must relinquish its power to the free market to give hope to the plight of homeless children. Government will be the manager rather than the provider of such services, promoting diversified funding channels. Currently, several children's charitable organizations outside China have obtained approval from the Chinese government to operate in China. Also, organizations and individuals outside China may partner with those inside to create a variety of programs. These partnerships can be with the government or private parties.

Since 1843, Catholic and Protestant churches have established numerous charities. Through nurturing, training and laboring they launched a new wave of child services in China. Their contribution in the effort to rescue homeless children in modern China cannot be overlooked. Today, foreign religious organizations are officially prohibited from operating as such in China. However, as China opens its door a little wider to the rest of the world, through unofficial and private parties, the impact outside charities can make in helping homeless Chinese children get off the streets can be enormous and far-reaching.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio