The reasons why children leave home to live on the streets, and subsequently remain living on the street, are numerous and well researched (Thomas de Benitez, 2011). Sometimes these decisions are made for them as their circumstances provide them with a very narrow set of choices. However, there are also children who would say that they have made their own decision to live on the street and that “everyone knows what he is doing.” During my research with street-connected children in Arusha and Moshi in Northern Tanzania, the children interviewed gave numerous yet purposeful reasons for choosing to remain on the street. However, for many of them, the street is not their end goal and few of them have an expressed desire to be a street-connected adult.
Despite desires to leave the street on their own terms at some point, it is not always easy to facilitate children and youth’s move away from the street. The first half of this post will explore some of the ways children and youth in my field study negotiate life on the street and develop future prospects. The second half will present some suggested interventions that may enable children and youth to capitalise on their skills and potential.
Reasons for the street
During six months in northern Tanzania I collected 25 group and individual interviews with 55 street-connected children, former street-connected adults, community members, practitioners and social workers. Based on this research, there are several trends that have emerged from my data. Firstly, many of the children that were interviewed had left home in search of a better life. What children were looking for in order to realise a better life varied in relation to what they left behind. For example, those who left a poor family may be looking for money, food and material goods. Or those who come from abusive families may be looking for refuge with a safer community. Once on the street, their decision to remain was based on a comparison of which life was the easiest to manage. For many, street life was preferable to the home life they had experienced. Despite this, some children would say that “home life” was preferable to street life, but this was often in relation to an ‘idealised’ home life, rather than referring to the home that they had come from.
Secondly, children who left home to find a better life on the street are those who have decided, or found it necessary to, take responsibility for themselves and make their own way in life. Since they are responsible for their own survival, they are acutely aware of the costs and benefits of their daily activities. The children and young people involved in the study have developed various strategies for meeting their daily needs and have their own ideas of what investments will serve them well in the future. Consequently, many younger children disregard the importance of going to school and prefer to earn money on the street and enjoy the relative freedom living on the street affords. Older youth and young adults consider themselves too old for school and would rather have a skill or a profession than “waste” their time going back to school. From the children’s perspective, to leave the street and go to school requires a gamble on an unknown variable (the quality or potential to succeed) and uncertain odds (the usefulness) of pursuing education. To go to school also involves the loss of friends on the street and a loss of freedom while carrying the risk that they may not adapt well to these new spaces.
Thirdly, children and youth who live on the streets spend their days negotiating a series of safe and unsafe spaces. Inherent in this is a restlessness and uncertainty that can prohibit long-term planning or cumulative gains. Many children and young people bemoaned the challenges of not having somewhere safe to keep things, therefore limiting their ability to look presentable (by having a spare change of clothes) or build up assets which might help them earn a living (such as a cooking pot, or tools). Many children would use shopkeepers or business owners to hold money for them as a makeshift banking service which they could draw on to buy clothes at times of celebration, such as Eid or Christmas. Despite this innovation, the absence of basic storage facilities enabling the accumulation of assets ensured that each day a child or young person started back at square one. They may have ended the previous day with enough money to buy a work uniform, but it would be pointless to invest in that uniform if it is likely to be stolen while the child is sleeping. This means that children and youth are more likely to focus on hand-to-mouth provision, spending most of what they earn each day and limiting their ability to plan for medium-term goals. Many of the older children hoped to rent a room of their own – a place where they could rest and feel safe. However, without the means of securing a more stable livelihood, the jump to renting a room appeared insurmountable.
Lastly, street-connected children do not want to be viewed or treated differently from other children. They are aware of the scorn and suspicion placed on them by wider society, largely because they often need to resort to stealing in order to survive living on the street. They recognise that their living on the streets goes against social normalities and casts suspicion on their character. All the children and young people we spoke to, apart from one, took drugs of some variety and recognised that this may exacerbate the stigmatisation they receive from the community. However, the children and young people on the street considered themselves active, productive and responsible citizens, distinguishing themselves from “mateja” (drug addicts) or “beggars” who were considered to be not “living life.” Many felt that they had learned valuable skills on the street and wanted to be recognised for their progress and maturity rather than for their transgressions.
Working with the children and young people where they’re at
In order to work with children and young people who are living on the street, it is first important to acknowledge and appreciate that they all have their own reasons for coming to the street and wishing to stay on the street, despite the obvious dangers and challenges that street life presents. Secondly, is to recognise that many children are seeking purpose, progression and something meaningful to do with their days. While it might be difficult to convince a child to return to education, it is still important to continue to work with a child to consider different opportunities that may be available to them. Thirdly, in order to allow children and young people to move away from daily, cyclical and hand-to-mouth living, they would benefit from being provided with supported accommodation in urban areas. This accommodation needs to be safe and visited regularly by social workers. Where there are vulnerable young people, there are also people who will exploit them. Therefore, children and young people need as many positive influences in their lives as possible. This could be a house “mother”, mentors, street (youth) workers, trainers or counsellors who can help them to feel appreciated and encourage them to pursue their potential. Lastly, children and youth need peers and adults who will help them learn how to deal with responsibility and negotiate society as an individual divorced from their parents and wider family. This is something that children and youth can and do learn independently, but adults who are trusted in the community can play a key role in bridging social divides that exist between street-connected children and the rest of society.
Gemma Pearson is a PhD Student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. Her PhD research is part-funded by StreetInvest. The fieldwork discussed here was partly funded through the Department of Geography’s Paul Broome Award. She blogs about her research at: http://www.methodandmeaning.com/
Thomas de Benítez, S. (2011) State of the World’s Street Children: Research. Street Children Series 2 Report. Consortium for Street Children.
 This is in relation specifically to material goods. An interesting nuance to this is where children and youth have invested in their social capital – building up trusting relationships with market sellers over time, securing them a good reputation and an enhanced likelihood of help in kind and offers of work.