Nick Thompson first volunteered with Salaam Baalak Trust fifteen years ago, following his City Walk experience. Since then he has spent at least three months in Delhi each year (aside from when the pandemic made it impossible) and is a trustee for Friends of SBT, the charity he was inspired to co-found in 2010. Here Nick reports on three of the very different SBT centres he visited on his trip earlier in 2022.
OLD DELHI SHELTER HOME
The heat, about 42 degrees, was oppressive but dry: this was before the monsoon season when maximum temperatures are a bit lower but the humidity is even more challenging.
Trains trundled slowly past from Old Delhi Station as I approached the Old Delhi Open Shelter nearby. There were still architectural hints of a more affluent past in the colonial era building, but like the rest of the old city it's now a working place and dozens of crates and boxes blocked the way to the door.
The central room on the first floor appeared to be reserved for two goats, and SBT has the top floor which it rents from a private landlord. Space is hard to come by in this commercial area: it's Rs70,000 (£700) a month and this goes up 10% a year, unlike the head office and one of the boys' shelters which come rent free from the Delhi Development Authority. It's called an Open Shelter but works more like a children's home in that children come here to stay full time, although only for a period of up to 6 or 12 months. The day I visited 19 children were being cared for there, although there are typically half a dozen new arrivals or departures every day and these can push the number up to over 30.
The challenges for the young people here mirror those seen throughout other SBT homes; namely drugs and a lack motivation for education or future career. From this centre four children are currently in a residential detox centre on a three-month programme, provided for free from another NGO. SBT offers a dedicated child development unit for special needs children in another of their shelter home but, as that only has capacity for the most severe cases, the Old Delhi Open Shelter is home to a number of deaf boys too. CHILDLINE CENTRE, OLD DELHI STATION
Later in the week I went back to Old Delhi station itself to see the operation that SBT run there, on one of the platforms, as part of the Childline programme. SBT is the operational partner in central Delhi for Childline, which is a government-run programme based around a phone helpline like the ones here in the UK and Ireland. But around the Old Delhi Station centre their work is limited to the station itself so it also operates as a physical outreach centre. I was surprised by how large the operation here was, with a total of 10 staff, and by the fact that they help 1,000 children. At this particular point the vast majority of these interventions are not actually sparked by a phone call (the two other Childline centres run by SBT in Delhi are run on the more typical phone system basis.) These children are mainly from in and around Delhi, and are mainly boys, which means that many can be restored to their families nearby. But I met quite a few girls too, some of whom were victims of trafficking, and some from as far away as West Bengal.
There is a lot of co-operation with the other authorities around the station so that if SBT outreach workers don't find a vulnerable child directly they are referred to them by station management or police. One way or another that's 5 or 6 children a day, which is quite an operation.
Any child here that SBT staff intervene to help must be presented to the local Child Welfare Committee (CWC), within 24 hours, for a magistrate or committee member to make an official first order for the child to stay in a home overnight. But since CWC members don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, Monday mornings are difficult. On one recent Monday, the co-ordinator, Meena, had 21 children who had arrived since Friday afternoon, so she had to borrow the bus used for the mobile school. Many of these 21 will have stayed in the Old Delhi shelter home for the weekend, and many will be placed there by a magistrate under a short-term order. But other children were placed at 3 different homes, so SBT staff spent most of the day driving them around the city.
YAMUNA BAZAAR SBT CONTACT POINT Close to the river Yamuna and north of the Red Fort, SBT has been working for many years near a Hanuman temple that is a focal point for needy people who come to beg for food or money, particularly on Tuesdays and Saturdays which are the main times when Hanuman is worshipped. The current contact point is based in a small, somewhat temporary building (a bit like a large Portakabin) that serves as a Delhi government night shelter for adults. The staff here deal mainly with children of street living families.
Different groups bring different challenges. Children with families on the street won't normally be presented to Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee (CWC) because in theory they're not 'in need of care and protection' and shouldn't be removed from their parents. However, in the years since I have been coming to this contact point and its predecessors in the same area, there have always been problems with hard drug use and the prevailing addiction that this leads to. I remember being told of children as young as 13 or 14 not just smoking and sniffing glue but also becoming addicted to ‘brown sugar’ or smack, a cheaper or adulterated heroin, and sometimes injecting drugs too.
So, most of the work is counselling the parents and getting the children enrolled in school. I have always found the similar stories from the contact points particularly moving: the idea of a child waking up on the pavement but then going to the SBT contact point to wash and change into school uniform, and then to look and perhaps feel as if they belong for a few hours.
It is often difficult for SBT to get funders to support what they see as routine operations. There has long been a tendency for some donors to want to see their name on a new building. But these visits reminded me that much of SBT’s best, most urgent and most inspiring work requires almost nothing in terms of buildings or infrastructure. It is about committed and experienced staff at ground level intervening on a daily or hourly basis to help vulnerable children.
It may be routine in the sense that staff come to work, and centres operate, with a daily or weekly timetable. But many of these interventions are life saving, or life changing.