Who are street children?

While street children are easy to see in many big cities in the world such as Jakarta, Kolkata and San Paolo, they defy convenient generalisations about who they are.

Most of those who are there on their own (or possibly with a sibling) are there because of family break-down of some kind and/or of acute poverty. Children may be there because of abuse from family members, often from a step-parent or from a close (usually older) relative. They include children who have been orphaned and who have lost either one, or both parents. Some are homeless, and sleep on the streets, while others may have shelter and are simply working on the streets. Some are living with a family group who have become homeless, or who are living in slum shanties. Many work in open-air markets, or at roadside eating places. Others survive by begging or by rag-picking from rubbish dumps and waste bins. In order to survive, many are forced into petty crime such as thieving, and/or into prostitution. Some street children are there because they have become separated from their family by conflict (as in parts of Africa), and some may have been pressganged into fighting and even killing.

The term ’street children’ is commonly used, because it is short and is widely understood. Some say that the words give off a negative impression, and that it labels and stigmatises children. Others say that it gives them a sense of identity, and possibly a sense of belonging. 

Most street-connected children are extremely lonely, lacking essential family support. They are liable to get drawn into local gangs, and to be introduced to various kinds of substance abuse.

UNICEF’s definition includes three different categories:

  • children ‘of’ the street (street-living children), who sleep in public places without their families
  • children ‘on’ the street (street working children), who work on the streets during the day and return to their family home to sleep, and
  • street-family children who live with their family on the street.

It is important for everyone working in the field to listen to what the children themselves say. While they may be poor, hungry, scared and possibly ill, they also help each other. They form groups of friends, and each child is unique, and has great potential. The children have views and experience of their own, and some of their life skills and survival skills may be highly developed. At the same time, they are very vulnerable.