We know every child on the street in Maseru. We also know those who were once kids - now young adults - still living on the streets. We love these ones, too, and they love us.
Our team are some of the few who can enter into their hangouts freely. It has been such a joy to witness some of the young men having the courage to try for something better. Over time, we have seen their numbers dwindle, but a solid cadre remains, too lethargic and weary from a life on the street. Their experience has taught them not to try and not to see their own worth.
It is hard to watch some young men progress and some refuse to budge. Every one of them hates the street. Most have hated it enough to let us help.
On my last visit to the largest hangout, we lifted weights together and as I was leaving I told them that I don't want to go to their funerals. They should be coming to mine. The simple truth is that being on the streets ends in prison or death.
We've celebrated young men leaving the streets, getting jobs and moving into simple houses. Before long, they are arrested for violent crime. They find mundane, every day life unbearable and seek out the dangerous highs of their former street life.
Our experience has shown that the best time to help a child off the streets is when they first arrive, before they have settled in and while the situation that drove them to the street can be addressed quickly. If these young men were helped when they were children, all of this waste could have been avoided. Instead, truly well meaning people entertained them, fed them and clothed them year after year.
Since we started our work here, the number of children who have arrived on the streets and stayed is close to zero. The only ones who remain today were on the streets before we started, most for five to ten years, with an established identity and routine.
On average, we have a child in a home within 2 to 3 weeks of us meeting them. That means we are preventing these little ones growing up on the streets through to adulthood. We intervene before they can fit in and adopt identities as 'street kids.'
When we are at street hangouts, it is interesting that the old ones report the new ones to us, asking us to help them off. They would never articulate it like this, but it is as if they are saying, 'don't let them become like us.'
Although they have lost hope for themselves, we haven't. We still think they can make that terrifying step into normal life. And we'll be there to help them when they want it.