Early on a winter morning in Hanoi, I was out for a run around one of the city’s lakes.
As someone who was once a street kid, I am always alert to seeing children who are homeless. On this morning, I spotted three boys sitting in the doorway of a shop. Everything was still dark and the shop was closed, but I could see they were holding each other to keep warm.
Their filthy clothes and skinny arms told me that they had been on the streets for a long time.
I put my training on hold and went to chat with the boys, but they insisted that they were fine. Even though they were exhausted, cold and hungry, they told me that they lived nearby and were just out playing.
It might seem strange that kids who are in a desperate situation would refuse to receive help. I see this a lot in my work. Sometimes kids will accept a helping hand right away but others will deny that they need it for weeks or even months.
I talked with the boys for a while and then went back to the Blue Dragon centre nearby to get some clothes and food for them. Without challenging what they said, I just handed them some things that they clearly needed and gave them a way to contact me if they wanted to.
After that, we stayed in touch and I went to see them regularly. Sometimes they would message me from an internet cafe asking that I come to see them. One morning, I heard my phone beep at 3am and saw that they wanted to talk. I traveled across the city to meet the boys for breakfast and they were gone by the time I arrived. Even though they had invited me to meet them, they were afraid to see me.
It would be easy to see the kids as ungrateful, or even as being rude. Here I was doing everything to help and they chose to live on the street instead! I’ve even heard people call kids like this “little mafia” and accuse them of wanting to live on the street because it is convenient for them.
But I don’t see it like this.
Kids like these three boys are traumatized. When I first meet them, I have no idea what they have been through. And I can see that the children do want help. They are just too afraid to receive it.
As I got to know these boys, they introduced me to some more of their friends who are also homeless. Together they live under a bridge and spend their days collecting scrap around the city. Sometimes they wander too far from their “home” to walk back, so they sleep in ATM booths or doorways and just keep working the next day.
One boy named Phi told me that to survive, he collects empty bottles. He earns up to $1 per day, but often less. When he has some money, Phi goes to a tiny restaurant and buys the leftover rice. This is rice that has been cooked but not eaten, so would normally be thrown out. Phi buys as much as he can and takes it back to the bridge where he fries it up on an open fire and mixes it with the cheapest instant noodles he can buy. Then he and his friends have a meal together.
Phi is a child, not yet 15 years old, and this is how he gets through each day. As he walks the streets, some people accuse him of being a bad person; others try to offer him money if he will go with them for sex. Phi tells me that he has never done this, but it’s possible that he has.
So how could I expect that Phi and his friends would trust me? They’ve met many people before who offered help but just wanted to post a story about them on social media, or wanted to trick the boys into being abused. Some people with good intentions have also approached Phi and his friend, but then tried to force them to go back to their families in the countryside.
These kids dream that somebody will come and help them; but they are so afraid they will be hurt again.
As one of the children in the group said to me recently: “So many things have happened to us already.”
I have started now to build trust with Phi and his friends. How have I done this?
1. I make myself available. The kids know how to contact me anytime. When they ask to meet, I do my best to get there. If I ask to meet and they refuse, I show them that it’s fine and I respect their decision.
2. I set appropriate limits. Just because they call doesn’t mean I can always drop everything to go see them. If I can, I do. And if I can’t, I tell them so and suggest a different plan.
3. I keep it personal. One time, when the boys were expecting me to come, I made the mistake of sending another staff member to see them instead. I was really busy and couldn’t make it; but Phi and his friends hadn’t met other Blue Dragon staff before. This was a valuable lesson for me: trust must be very strong before it can be shared with others.
4. I give without expectation. There have been times that the boys needed money but didn’t want to see me. So I found a way to send money to them. (Some internet cafes offer a ‘money transfer’ service for small amounts). And I never use my help as leverage over the kids by telling them that they should follow me just because I have helped them. Everything I do is done freely.
5. I look for the best in them. To other people, these boys seem wild. The way they interact with each other and with strangers is very physical and loud; they don’t follow the rules that everyone else does. But they are also kind and honest. One time when I took them for a meal, they spent time discussing which dish would be cheapest and also fill their bellies for the longest time. When I notice them being so thoughtful, I make a point to compliment them.
6. I show a genuine interest in their wellbeing. Nearly every day, I check in with the boys either in person or by social media. Just by asking how they are and seeing if they need anything, I am showing that I truly care.
7. I let them know who I am. Building trust goes both ways. It’s not fair for me to ask them about who they are and tell me their story if I don’t also tell them the same information about myself. When they see that I am open with them, they are more likely to be open with me. In fact, by doing this we have found some surprising personal connections: Blue Dragon has helped other street kids and families who they know, so it turns out that we have mutual friends!
Even though I am working with homeless and traumatized street kids, many of these lessons apply to anyone in a leadership situation. Have a look at these seven practices again. If you want to build trust with anyone, these will help.
Building trust takes time. It can be frustrating and disappointing; but if you truly want to connect with someone who is in a desperate situation, it is possible. There are no tricks or shortcuts; it’s just about basic human decency and being patient.
This post first appeared on Vi Do’s LinkedIn. Connect with him!