Scenes of elderly homeless people sleeping on pavements and bare footed children running between cars begging for money or food have become familiar.
There are at least 12 million homeless people, among them three million children, in Egypt, according to reports issued by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and the problem is most severe in Cairo, Giza, Qalioubiya, Alexandria, Menoufiya, Sharqiya, Suez, Beni Swief, Minya and Assiut.
On 15 January the Ministry of Social Solidarity initiated the “We are With You” campaign, in coordination with the ministries of interior and health, to help tackle the problem of homelessness.
Campaign staff work on returning children to their families or to offer some alternative shelter. Those who refuse to be relocated are given food, medicines and blankets.
According to Ayman Abdel-Aziz, deputy head of the campaign, the government is currently building shelters for street children and other homeless people.
The campaign is funded by LE50 million from the Ministry of Social Solidarity and a further LE114 million from the Tahya Misr fund.
“The campaign aims at rehabilitating children socially and psychologically and where possible, with the help of the Ministry of Interior, reuniting them with their families. The campaign is also focused on helping old people cope with the cold weather by providing them with hot meals and blankets should they refuse to return to their families or move to the ministry’s shelters,” said Abdel-Aziz.
Since the beginning of the campaign Abdel-Aziz says the ministry has succeeded in rescuing 1,234 homeless adults and 537 street children from Cairo, Alexandria, Sharqiya and Suez.
It has allocated two hotlines — 16439 and 16528 — and the number 010 9536 8111 for members of the public to report any individuals without shelter. People can also inform the Ministry via its Facebook page.
Seventeen teams are now working across Egypt to help the homeless. Each team comprises a social worker, psychologist, paramedic, police officer and a case management specialist. They work six hours per day, six days a week.
“The teams were carefully selected from 3,000 applicants. They were trained in collaboration with international organisations that have experience in the field, such as FACE for Children in Need, Save the Children and UNICEF,” says Abdel-Aziz.
The ministry now plans to coordinate with different NGOs to encourage them to build shelters for the homeless.
“Although the Ministry of Social Solidarity offers support some street children still run away and resort to stealing and using drugs. There are strict instructions from Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali to move street children to shelters and provide them with education, medical and social care,” says Abdel-Azisz.
Ahmed Emad, a police officer and member at one of the teams, says that in addition to the social aspect of the programme there is also a crime prevention aspect. Vulnerable children are being exploited in criminal activities and the Ministry of Interior is committed to working with the Ministry of Social Solidarity to ensure street children are provided with decent shelter and education so that they become useful members of society.
The campaign’s spokesperson Hazem Al-Mallah says “We are With You” is a multi-pronged initiative: it includes street teams and mobile units that reach out to the homeless and provide them temporary medical and psychological services; the development of shelters for the homeless; case management, including following up on vulnerable people who have returned to their families to ensure they do not return to the street, and finally, a social marketing component.
With more than 30 per cent of the Egyptian population living under the poverty line the government is trying to widen social safety nets and provide help to the most needy.
Earlier this month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi launched the “Decent Life” initiative to serve as an umbrella for civil society initiatives aimed at providing healthcare, social services, job opportunities and developing infrastructure.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: ‘We are with you’