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Street children and homelessness

Street children facts:

Who are considered homeless and street children?
Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) asserts that “States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” Homelessness denies each one of those rights. According to an Inter-NGO Program on street children and youth, a street child is “any girl or boy who has not reached adulthood, for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, directed, and supervised by responsible adults.”

US AID has divided Street Children into Four Categories:

Street child statistics
The hidden and isolated nature of street children makes accurate statistics difficult to gather; however, UNICEF estimates there are approximately 100 million street children worldwide with that number constantly growing. There are up to 40 million street children in Latin America , and at least 18 million in India.1 Many studies have determined that street children are most often boys aged 10 to 14, with increasingly younger children being affected (Amnesty International, 1999).2 Many girls live on the streets as well,3 although smaller numbers are reported due to their being more “useful” in the home, taking care of younger siblings and cooking. Girls also have a greater vulnerability to trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation or other forms of child labor.

Where do homeless and street children live around the world
Homelessness is largely an urban phenomenon, yet children are homeless and living on the streets in every region of the world from developing countries to the most affluent countries. Latin America and India , for example, are known for their large populations of street children,4 despite the significant efforts of some governments and non-governmental organizations. The AIDS epidemic and civil wars in Africa have caused a surge in the number of street children as a result of the abandonment of AIDS orphans or fatalities due to armed conflict. Failing economies and falling currencies in parts of Asia force the poorest families onto the street, often leaving children abandoned and homeless. Unstable political transitions, such as the end of Communism in Eastern Europe , caused unprecedented numbers of street children due to inadequate social security for the poor and those formerly State supported. Children often experience the effects of political, economic, and social crises within their countries more severely than adults, and many lack the adequate institutional support to address their special needs. Eventually, they end up on the streets.

Perspective: In 1996, the United States had 5.5 million children living in extreme poverty, approximately one million of whom were on the streets.5 A study conducted by the Luxembourg Income Study shows poor children in the United States are poorer than children in most Western industrialized countries, since the United States has less generous social programs, the widest gap between rich and poor, and high numbers of poor immigrant and unwed teen mothers.6 The poverty and social conditions many American children face lead to large numbers of homeless and street children.

Vulnerability and homeless and street children
Children who are vulnerable to street life include those who have been abandoned by their families or sent into cities because of a family's intense poverty, often with hopes that a child will be able to earn money for the family and send it home. Children who run away from home or children's institutions frequently end up on the street since they rarely return home due to dysfunctional families, or physical, mental, and/or sexual abuse. In several areas of the world, disabled children are commonly abandoned, particularly in developing countries. In addition, refugee children of armed conflict areas, children separated from their families for long periods of time, and AIDS orphans, repeatedly find nowhere to go but the streets.

The effects of street and homeless life
Homelessness and street life have extremely detrimental effects on children. Their unstable lifestyles, lack of medical care, and inadequate living conditions increase young people's susceptibility to chronic illnesses such as respiratory or ear infections, gastrointestinal disorders, and sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.[7] Children fending for themselves must find ways to eat; some scavenge or find exploitative physical work. Many homeless children are enticed by adults and older youth into selling drugs, stealing, and prostitution.

Drug use by children on the streets is common as they look for means to numb the pain and deal with the hardships associated with street life. Studies have found that up to 90 percent of street children use psychoactive substances, including medicines, alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cannabis, and readily available industrial products such as shoe glue.

The mental, social and emotional growth of children are affected by their nomadic lifestyles and the way in which they are chastised by authorities who constantly expel them from their temporary homes such as doorways, park benches, and railway platforms. Countries in Latin America like Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Brazil are notorious for the torture and violence inflicted on street children, many times escalating to murder “by police officers or death squads. Street children lack security, protection, and hope, and continue to face a deep-rooted negative stigma about homelessness. And, more than anything else, they lack love.

Protecting children
Many governments, nongovernmental organizations, and members of civil society around the world have increased their attention on homeless and street children as the number of this disenfranchised population continues to grow dramatically. Nonetheless, more action is necessary. Most importantly, as a result of adverse economic conditions in many countries, an international plan to provide basic housing needs to be developed.
In 1992, the United Nations issued a Resolution on the Plight of Street Children, expressing concern over the emergence and marginalization of street children, and the acts of violence against them. The Resolution called for international cooperation to address the needs of homeless children and for enforcement of international child rights laws. European nations that have taken effective steps toward combating homelessness include Belgium , Finland , the Netherlands , Portugal , and Spain . In many countries, governments have included a right to housing in the national constitution.[8] The Finnish devised a plan in 1987 including house-building, social welfare, health care service, and a duty to provide a decent home for every homeless person. The number of homeless people in Finland was cut in half after 10 years.[9] However, the major problem with State programs is that children often reject the alternative assistance offered by the State.

On a local and regional level, initiatives have been taken to assist street children, often through shelters. Many shelters have programs designed to provide safety, healthcare, counseling, education, vocational training, legal aid, and other social services. Some shelters also provide regular individual contact, offering much-needed love and care.

Many NGOs have been founded with mission to improve the plight of homeless adults and youth. Casa Alianza, active in Mexico and Central America; Child Hope UK working with local groups worldwide; Butterflies, based in New Delhi, India; and, Street Kids International, a Canadian-based organization, all focus specifically on street children. Prayas Juvenile Aid Centre (JAC) Society, based in Delhi , India , pioneered the first intensive study on Homeless children ever conducted; they have also set up numerous shelters providing basic security, food, and clothing for more than 50,000 homeless people in Greater Delhi.

Get involved
If you are interested in helping street and homeless children, you can volunteer to work in shelters and other programs in your area, or donate funds or supplies to organizations that work with street youth. You can also participate in legislative efforts and write letters to your Congressional Representative urging him/her to support increased funding for programs in the United States and abroad that assist street children. Finally, you can raise awareness of this issue by educating yourself, your peers, colleagues, students, teachers, family members, and others around you interested in this issue.

[2] Beasley, Rob. “On the Streets,” Amnesty Magazine. April 1999.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Alston, Philip. “Hardship in the Midst of Plenty,” The Progress of Nations , 1998, p. 29.
[6] “U.S. Poor are among World's Poorest,” The New York Times , August 14, 1999 .
[7] Alston, Philip. P. 29.
[8] Ibid. p. 31.
[9] Ibid.

This feature with kind permission of Youth Advocate Program International

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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