In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Street Children

  • Introduction
  • Definition
  • Families of Origin
  • Making the Decision to Leave Home
  • Gender Differences
  • Mental Health
  • Drug Use
  • The Importance of Cultural Context
  • Group Behavior
  • The Subculture
  • Conducting Research
  • Programs
  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Childhood Studies Street Children
Lewis Aptekar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0145


“Street children” is a dubious moniker, because the term can embrace such a wide range of categories: “children of the street,” “children on the street,” “homeless children or youth,” “abandoned children,” etc. By using a clear-cut definition we can better understand their characteristics, their families of origin, the different paths boys and girls take from leaving home to being fully engaged in street life, their unique developmental stages, and the effects of culture, all of which are subject to different interpretations. While these caveats will not stop children taking to the streets, the hope is that it will help direct future research and programs. When we refer to street children in this chapter we mean those who come from the developing world and homeless youth who come from the developed world. When we speak of both, we call them “children in street situations.” While children in the streets are often thought of as a huge public nuisance and treated badly (and in some cases killed for petty crimes) important research indicates that their numbers are exaggerated, and their behavior is made to seem more deviant and criminal than it is. Children in street situations cannot be understood outside the history and culture of their countries of origins, nor can the effects of social class be dismissed in how they are received by the society they live in. Reactions to them vary: violence, indifference, or assistance are the most common. Some studies show that they are not just victims but also actors trying to surmount their difficulties by creating a world that helps them survive. There is no clear answer to why only a small percentage of poor and abused children become street children; and although poverty is a factor it is not a sufficient condition in and of itself. For homeless youth, abuse is also a factor but not a necessary condition. They do not come from poverty. Schaffner 1999 (cited under Definition) is about American runaways and finds that fewer than 10 percent of them were on public assistance. Their families of origin are different than most street children, so the situation is complex. For example, in examining the unique developmental stages of children in street situations, Aptekar and Stoecklin 2014 (cited under Definition) finds that the importance of gender has been underrated: 90 percent of street children are male, while among homeless youth the gender ratio is about equal. It is not clear why, but the boys’ physical and mental health is generally better than other poor and abused boys, while the girls lag behind their matched peers. Nor is it clear if children in street situations are like gangs, nor if children in street situations constitute a particular urban sub-culture. Researchers have been criticized for their methods of collecting data and for their sampling techniques. It is debatable if the most effective programs work in a human rights model, or if there are too many directed aid-based programs, and not enough effort aimed at prevention. There appears to be a good deal of moral judgment about variations in child rearing. The debate centers on respecting culture and individual difference but not taking away children’s rights as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bestows important yet difficult-to-administer human rights for children.


UNICEF 1986 began noticing a newly emerging group of children working in the streets, which it labeled “street children.” Many claims about street children were made without empirical evidence, including that they were parentless and abandoned. Their numbers are also over-estimated (Hecht 2000). A more current and scholarly definition in a cross-cultural context is provided by Aptekar and Stoecklin 2014. They have divided children in street situations into street children from the developing world and homeless youth from the developed world. While this division is helpful for broad strokes, it does not tell the whole picture, because many countries such as Brazil can be considered “developed” but have histories related to street children that straddle the line between a developed and a developing country. For example, Mikulak 2011 shows how a child’s skin color is imbedded in the country’s history and is a predictable variable for becoming a street child. Luchinni 2007 presents a conceptual framework of children in street situations (CSS), which helps to define the diverse groups of children in street situations and to show that the children are actively coping with a developed emotional and cognitive system. This is a useful alternative to seeing children in street situations as passive respondents to their environment. One dimension that is often left out of the definition of children in street situations is their skin color, particularly in reference to the society’s view of race. Marquez 1999 shows how skin color is an important variable in understanding Venezuelan street children. For a long time there have been questions about the differences between working children and street children. Ataov and Haider 2006 separates its profiles and provides valuable information on their families of origin. Smollar 1999 defines homeless youth in America by beginning with the USA and its Stewart and McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which defined homeless American youth as living without families, lacking a regular adequate nighttime residence, or as living in a shelter, institutional facility, or a place not ordinarily used for sleeping (such as the floor of a friend’s house). Invernizzi 2003 helps us see a broader picture by showing that children working in the street are quite diverse in circumstances and psychosocial functioning. Aptekar and Stoecklin 2014 provides an expansive current bibliography that helps to define several fundamental characteristics, including important gender differences. For example, street boys represent 90 percent of street children. They are encouraged to work in the streets at an early age because of poverty. Street girls are on the streets because they have been abused or neglected. Homeless youth have made a choice to leave an abusive home; half of these homeless youths are female and some are middle class. de Moura 2002 considers how the information about children in street situations is presented in narrative and by the media.

  • Aptekar, L., and D. Stoecklin. Street Children and Homeless Youth: A Cross-cultural Perspective. Amsterdam: Springer, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-7356-1

    The authors provide a detailed up-to-date list of research, research results, and programs. Specific research methods are suggested and others are mentioned that are to be avoided. They categorize programs and introduce a Public Mental Health Model to serve children in street situations. They also point out the need to take into account the child’s point of view about childhood.

  • Ataov, A., and J. Haider. “From Participation to Empowerment: Critical Reflections on how Participatory Action Research Project with Street Children in Turkey.” Children, Youth Environments 16.2 (2006): 127–152.

    This work is helpful in seeing how children in street situations are different from one another. Clearly separates the behaviors and definition of working children from street children and provides valuable information on their families of origin.

  • de Moura, S. “The Social Construction of Street Children: Configuration and Implications.” British Journal of Social Work 32 (2002): 353–367.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/32.3.353

    The author makes the claim that children in street situations are labeled in a certain way because they are not in line with acceptable child behavior. He believes they would be described differently if they lived in another place or time. Their characteristics are based on the social mores of the society and for meeting their ends. Other possibilities exist, but their image must be reexamined.

  • Hecht, T. “In Search of Brazil’s Street Children.” In Abandoned Children. Edited by C. Panter-Brick and M. Smith, 146–160. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Following large numbers of street children was a huge influx of NGOs to provide for them. Yet, Hecht could not find them. The influences to inflate the numbers, includes the media to sell papers, the NGOs who compete for the larger pie, and for the academics to increase the importance of their research.

  • Invernizzi, A. “Street Working Children and Adolescents in Lima: Work as an Agent of Socialization.” Childhood 10.4 (2003): 319–341.

    DOI: 10.1177/09075682030103005

    Work is essential to children in street situations, thus there is not a clearly defined boundary between children working on the street and street children working on the street. Children working in the street are quite diverse in circumstances and psychosocial functioning, and being neglected is not necessarily abusive.

  • Luchinni, R. “‘Street Children’: Deconstruction of a Category.” In Life on the Streets, Children and Adolescents on the Streets: Inevitable Trajectories? Edited by I. Rizzini, U. Mandel Butler, and D. Stoecklin, 49–75. Geneva, Switzerland: Sion Institut International des Droits de l’enfant, 2007.

    Lucchini presents an innovative sociological model to define street children, which he calls the Child-Street System (CSS). His model shows the child’s subjective experience of street life and illustrates how the children are considered social actors who have values, norms, motivations, and self in mind when interacting with others.

  • Marquez, P. The Street is My Home: Youth and Violence in Caracas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    Street boys in Venezuela have a different developmental experience than street girls. Their skin color is an important variable to how society reacts to them. There are two specific types of street children: the chupaspegas, who survive because of their peer groups, and the malandros, whose identity comes from showing their wealth.

  • Mikulak, M. “The Symbolic Power of Color: Constructions of Race, Skin Color and Identity in Brazil.” Humanity and Society 35 (2011): 62–99.

    DOI: 10.1177/016059761103500104

    The history of racial consciousness in Brazil as Mikulak shows the history of slavery, race, and skin color. These factors have contributed to how Brazil has defined its democracy. The author has also defined what constitutes an acceptable childhood and sheds light on the lives of working children and street children.

  • Schaffner, L. Teenage Runaways: Broken Hearts and “Bad Attitudes.” New York: Haworth, 1999.

    The overwhelming reason why American children flee is abuse, followed by neglect. Poverty is far down the line. Many have good social skills and A determination to succeed.

  • Smollar, J. “Homeless Youth in the United States: Description and Development Issues.” In Homeless and Working Children Youth around the World: Exploring Developmental Issues. Edited by M. Raffaelli and R. Larson, 47–58. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

    This is basic text on homeless youth in America. It defines homeless youth in America, shows what their family life was like before they left home and what they encounter in the streets and among their friends. Also explains how these youths are treated by law enforcement officials.

  • UNICEF. Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances. United Nations Children’s Fund. New York: UNICEF, 1986.

    This is the first document from an international organization that mentions street children. It can be used as a primary source. It has historical value, showing how well- meaning established organizations might not rely on empirical data. Two responses followed its publications: a desperate willingness by the public to help, and a critical body of research.

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