Conceptual Tool: The Biographical Line
If we imagine a line that connects the points of a child’s progression from home to the streets and then to the exit, we can call this line the child’s biographical line. Imagining this line is important since significant alterations of this line prompt an exit, or at least the starting point of an exit, from the streets.
Example of a possible rupture
Identifying ruptures can help distinguish stages of a group of children before applying the same treatment to all members of the target group. Unfortunately, most NGO interventions ignore this nuance.
Having a quantified measurement of the strength of these ruptures and what amount of strength can lead to the following or preceding stage would’ve been very convenient for designing theories of change. However, children rarely attribute similar meaning to the experiences that we have named ruptures.
Conceptual Tool: Street Relationship
What is their relationship with the street? We can again conceptualize different ‘types’ of relationship a child has to the street. For example:
Conceptual Tool: Exit Prompts
What factors ultimately decide whether a child, no matter which stage of street life they are in, will leave the street permanently. Here are a few:
Complexity and a bit of Hope:
Every child will attribute different meanings to experiences we are calling ruptures. This is crucial when we are busy looking down the microscope and planning clever theories of change. What, then, determines what kind of meaning the child will give to these disruptions? Every factor, affective, social, physical and identity will play a role here.
Sometimes, local actors who assist these children with charitable intentions possess uncanny knowledge about what event may affect what dimensions, if only they were aware of the concepts we've conjured up here. The two polarities - top-down theorists and bottom-up observers - hold incredible promise in understanding these children if they collaborated.
Riccardo Lucchini and Daniel Stoecklin’s work on children in street situations is almost a paradigm shift in how we understand these children. Building on the work of scholars Lewis Aptekar, Lucchini pioneered the idea that street children should not be seen merely as victims or delinquents, but rather as individuals with multiple identities whose survival skills are valuable for later transitions.
The concept of these children having ‘careers’ on the street underscores the idea that the ‘career experiences’ can be transferred to other fields, especially when trying to reintegrate them into broader society. For example:
* Resilience and resourcefulness developed while surviving the street have the potential to help them later in education and vocational training.
* Ability to adapt to different social groups can be an asset in community-based programs.
In this series on street careers, I will focus on the conceptual building blocks of the ‘street career’. Empirical studies have not been done to test these concepts. However, I believe conceptual understanding will help shedding light on certain elements of street life that will help fill the inferential gaps, leading to a theory. The theory, then, can be tested using empirical methods.
None of the concepts here are my own, and this is not meant to be a scholarly article. I have drawn from the scholarly works of Daniel Stoecklin, Riccardo Lucchini, Addisu Birhanu and Lewis Aptekar. I only aim to summarize their examinations in a way that would be helpful to non-scholarly readers who are interested.
We begin at the end. When a street-dweller child finally leaves the street, it marks the end of a period. Referring this period to be the ‘street career’ is helpful in examining the stages a child goes through in his or her life on the streets.
The question of leaving the street can be put from a theoretical and empirical point of view. How to define an exit, but also how to empirically verify it?
The definition of the stages is no easy task. Definitions in social sciences, unlike pure sciences, are always limited to the definer’s view. If we assume there is a stage, then we must also infer that for that stage it is necessary to locate an event that marks the person’s preceding stage.
For example: A child is now alternating between the street and home as such that he sleeps at home, but the street has become the alternative home for his waking hours. So, this stage can be referred to as Alternation Stage, following a Distance-from-home stage.
There can often be a clear rupture between two successive stages. The progression of the stages is the passage throughout the street career. However, this ‘career’ is rarely linear, not to mention the back-and-forth between two stages before finally progressing to the next stage.
A rough schematic of stages
Now what may introduce ruptures between two stages? Children in street situations may change their reference group. For example, they will loosen their association with their peers who see the street as playground and start associating with new peers who uses the street for income-generating activities. In the next article, I will illustrate a few more concepts to understand the nature of the stages a little bit better.
A Little Digression
These income-generating activities often involve exploitative labour in the informal sectors, trading activities (buying and selling newspapers, flowers, holy souvenirs), or most commonly, begging. Begging, here, may be the most creative career undertaking for the child, since this activity teaches them survival skills and adaptability, not to mention, their acting skills. Their survival knowhow is acknowledged during intervention programs, but it is not valued. Their resourcefulness is seen as something close to delinquency, it is also associated with character deficiencies. The first of these deficiencies is the inability to postpone gratification. They are seen as presentists because they are solely oriented towards the present and immediate rewards. These ‘deficiencies’ are perfectly adapted to their world; they obey cultural logics.
Defoe is mostly recognized as the author of Robinson Crusoe- the story of a man abandoned on a desert island. This story could have been an existentialist nightmare. In Defoe, it becomes a tale of homo economicus: get busy and organize your resources.
The ingenuity of human resourcefulness is a central theme in another of his, less recognized, great novel: Moll Flanders.
During the 18th century while Britain was undergoing squalor and inequality from the industrial revolution, the journalist Defoe found the streets to be a laboratory for observation and imagination. Looking at society from the bottom up, Defoe makes his protagonist a woman, and turns her loose on the streets of London.
Moll was born in a prison to a criminal mother, foreshadowing the determinism of her future. After her birth, her mother is transported to America as part of her sentence, a common practice in England during that time. Moll, however, is left behind in England. As an orphan, Moll’s early life is a constant struggle for survival and identity. Early life is marked by attempts at finding stability and a sense of belonging, but the attempts fail her due to birth’s stigma.
The picaresque’s unfolding is a modern story of cunning and survival, revealing the resources available to people who do not have resources. Moll Flanders is a self-described artist who uses disguise as the key to her monetary and erotic successes; her world is governed by the rule of exchange. Throughout the novel, Moll will surprise the reader with her peculiar honesty and deep insights into the human condition.
Moll, an orphan without money or status, attempts to succeed in a world regulated by wealth and class. Her goal is to become a gentlewoman, which for Moll means gaining a measure of independence. Her only tools for achieving that goal are her beauty, body, wit and cunning. The younger Moll tries to make a wealthy marriage, usually by appearing to be woman of means. As she ages, she becomes a thief. Defoe is criticized to give a materialist definition of the ‘good life’ in this novel. In the context of Moll, we see that money, lace, linen and silver are things that are measurable and can be used as resources. How would immeasurable morality, emotion, and the soul help someone such as Moll survive?
We often see Moll’s unflinching honesty throughout the novel. Moll is a deceiver and a liar to the world, but honest to herself. When her first husband dies, Moll counts how much money he left her and tells us that her two children were ‘taken happily off my hands’. Here, she seems interested only in the material life.
Later, she describes a clever plan for stealing from the upperclass resident of a home during a fire. She feels remorse afterward, but says, “I could never find it in my heart to make any restitution. The reflection wore off and I began quickly to forget the circumstances that attended the taking them (the stolen items).” Remorse is real- it’s just not very powerful. We’re not without moral values, but life makes us callous, and those moral values surface occasionally. To the privileged, they get to surface more frequently due to not being a ‘have not’.
Moll’s erotic and economic successes would appear to hinge on her talent for disguise and self-presentation. Moll can never tell people who she is because of the risk that she would be hanged as a thief, not to mention the undoing of her survival strategies.
Thieving, throughout the novel, is depicted as a form of artistry, a creative activity. For Moll, the desire to steal verges on the pathological. Pathology is the deviation from the norm, but shouldn’t the norm be defined in relation to the individual?
Selectively reading the novel, I found some uncanny similarities between Moll and the street children. The thread that binds these similarities together is perhaps resourcefulness.
Street children are born in the most unfavourable environment imaginable. Their birth, too, foreshadows their future. A difficult upbringing follows. These children, then, are compelled to fend for themselves from a young age.
A street child merely doesn’t roam, scavenge, earn and sleep on the streets. They form their identity around the elements of the street life: social groups, vendors, peers, adults, institutions and so on. The mismatches between one element to the other is what makes their adaptability so fascinating. Here we see the shared trait with Moll.
Finally, when the street becomes a ‘place to belong’, life presents itself as shaky, and they soon start to realize they don’t really belong there. The streets are not for them, but for the beneficiaries of the urban metropolis.
Like Moll, a street child hides his identity due to safety. Camouflaged identities help generate income as well. Begging is built upon a deceptive identity. Street children beg using made-up identities and through lying generates the sustenance income. Here, the similarity between Moll and the street children cannot be more striking.
Like Moll, street children lack resources. So, they take what they have and build on those resources. No money? Beg. Use your babyish face and innocence to appeal the urbanites for some coins. No food? Wash the floors of cheap restaurants for income, and as a bonus, you will get to scavenge wasted food from the restaurants. No begging possible during rainy days? Steal and save that money during winter.
Street children practice theft to a level almost pathological. Here again, we see the similarities with Moll. In context, to say their habit of stealing has a pathological level is to say they have upgraded their skills as per the demand of their job-market.
The world of Moll Flanders and today’s street children are similar as well. Like Moll’s London at that time, Dhaka, Nairobi, Delhi, Cali are also cities of contrast.
Language shapes sociability among the CSS. With language and expression, they interact with their environment, build symbolic resources for survival, and form their identity. Understanding sociability is thus crucial towards understanding an element of the street regarding these children.
It's a paradoxical reality for CSS: the discomfort in expressing affection and care. The harshness of street life often leaves these children wary of showing vulnerability. Expressing love or importance is seen as a sign of weakness, a contrast to their accustomed reality of mistreatment and abuse. They often lack the vocabulary for expressing care, leading to a significant gap between their intense emotions and the ability to articulate them.
The harshness of street life often leaves children wary of showing vulnerability. We can find similarities in the TV shows about the Vikings. Expressing the need for love is seen as a sign of weakness, and this may be true across cultures. They often lack the vocabulary for expressing care, leading to a significant gap between their intense emotions and the ability to articulate them. This should make us wonder: how do these children throw a tantrum?
The example of Ricardo is taken from an academic text by the scholar Riccardo Lucchini. Ricardo is a boy in street situations in a Latin American city. With regards to girls, Ricardo claims that there is no difference between them and boys. It is not their gender that distinguishes between girls and boys, but their skills and competences. It is often very difficult to distinguish a girl from a boy in younger CSS. When the girls start to get older, they are subject to constant threats of assault by adult men who do not belong to the same world but are also present on the street: police, criminals, passersby etc.
Sexist prejudices are subordinated to meritocracy on the streets. Indeed, each is given the opportunity to demonstrate his or her skills. As Ricardo says, girls take their place on the street, and this place is respected by boys because it is defined by competence. Boys can come to the defence of girls when they are assaulted. This protection is not given to all girls, but only to those who ‘deserve it’. The right to respect is not a natural right but one that is earned.
Verbal aggression among CSS is a complex mix of cognitive limitations and cultural influences. However, it's essential to understand that their coarse language and crudeness often serve as mechanisms for interaction regulation, rather than literal expressions of hostility. This form of verbal jousting helps in de-escalating potential violence, transforming words into a non-literal, competitive game rather than a precursor to physical confrontation.
Verbal aggression among CSS is a mix of cultural logic and cognitive limitations. Coarse language and crudeness often do not carry literal meaning. Crudeness often serves as a mechanism for the regulation of interactions. The form of verbal jousting helps in de-escalating potential violence, transforming words into a non-literal, competitive game rather than a precursor to physical confrontation.
Interestingly, with habitual use, coarse language loses its positive or negative connotations, morphing into neutral, rhythmic elements of speech. This evolution underscores the adaptability and resilience of these children in using language as a tool for survival.
Conversational skills are often more important than physical prowess, as mastery in verbal expression garners respect and admiration. However, individuals experiencing a multitude of conflicting emotions such as hope, fear, constraint, and freedom often find it challenging to articulate these feelings. This can lead to confusion not only for themselves but also for those outside their circles. This difficulty in communication often hampers the efforts of street educators and social workers in understanding and assisting them.
The children's orientation toward 'immediate gratification,' focusing on short-term rewards rather than long-term goals, is a behaviour that is often misinterpreted as a lack of emotional control or delinquency. In reality, it is a sophisticated adaptation to their environment, often serving as a means of competition for the resources they can extract from social workers and educators.
An ethnographic approach would be more explanatory when studying CSS. Academic limitation does not allow me to draw on the theories of ethnography here. So, I will instead delineate some skills and strategies CSS deploy for their survival.
Facing the constraints of the street, a child is not defenceless. He or she is a social actor, who makes choices and creates opportunities that he or she knows how to exploit. Investigating the skills that undergo these systems of opportunities will allow us to understand the child’s capacity to draw on their available resources, and how interventions may improve the resources already available.
Survival strategies make an appeal to the child’s rationality. The information available to the child is subject to the use of this rationality. He or she may be unable to achieve a goal, despite possessing relevant information. Survival strategies are behaviours. To be of a strategic nature, these behaviours must be ‘goal oriented’, and have their own rationality which considers the opportunities available to the actor and the behaviour of his or her opponents.
A child may or may not have a strategy, depending on contexts. The absence of a goal is of course an insurmountable obstacle for laying out a strategy, especially for CSS since the Prefrontal cortex and the goal-oriented cognitive faculties are relatively absent at this age.
So, how they will develop a strategy depends on the context in which this goal is situated and the skills (means) available to the child. The simplest strategies are those employed to escape danger that arouse suddenly: for example, police raids or physical aggression. These strategies may be instinctual rather than sophisticatedly reasoned.
More elaborate strategies generally concern the search for protection and self-affirmation.
The survival needs on the streets- goods, clothing, washing, money, shelter, affection, and comfort- must be met. Basic survival strategies function to improve the CSS’s living conditions on the street. More elaborate strategies concern older children (teenagers) who are seeking ways to leave the street. For these children, search for protection goes hand in hand with a long-term project. It is often associated with the search for a patron or a ‘godfather’ who will introduce the teenager to the adult world. It is usually during this phase that some adolescents enter the world of crime.
The need for safety necessitates a search for protection. These searches for protection are non-confrontational. For example, here the child will present him/herself as a vulnerable person, often the tole of a victim.
Symbolic resources mean everything which relates to social representations and significations. Without them, communication would not exist since social interactions would be unthinkable.
Socio-cognitive structures filter the outside world and give it meaning.
There is a correlation between someone’s symbolic resources and their perception and evaluation of social reality: the more abundant these resources, the better an individual can relate to their environment. This allows for greater adaptability.
The more elaborate a child’s system of opportunity is, the more fulfilment they can get from street life. If the streets can somehow be made empty of this fulfilment, the children may be forced to exit or find some other way to sustain life. If so, should we disrupt this system of opportunity? This would be arrogant to even think since we do not have well-established alternatives for ‘would-be’ displaced children.
This series hope to partially explain why certain children prefer to stay on the streets rather than return to their home or institutional shelters, provided they have one of these two. If they do, then homes and institutions may not offer many opportunities to exercise these skills.
Consider a scenario:
A child is looking for food. Near restaurants, he recognised a prostitute, accompanied by a client. The client feels pride in accompanying such a wonderful lady. Instead of asking the lady for food, the child asks the man for food. He knows that the man cannot refuse without losing face in front of the lady. The child knew that the request immediately created a new situation, as something new was at stake for the man. By exploiting the situation, the boy got what he wanted.
This example is an illustration of a well-structured system of opportunity. Certain CSS know how to systematically create situations which they can subsequently exploit.
Survival strategies also concern the network of relations that children build with adults in their nearby environment. These adults are usually transportation workers, police officers, panhandlers, night guards, doormen, managers of cheap hotels, prostitutes, drug dealers etc. Children create relational webs of duration and consistency, but these networks have never been systematically studied. One could model this system that aligns with the paradigm of the study of complex-systems.
To researchers, the youngest of the CSS have spoken of security issues at night, partly security from assaults.
One of biggest need in street-survival is the need for night-time protection. Assaults are most common at nights. A child who has yet to integrate into street networks or is relatively isolated usually seeks police protection. But once a child is integrated into a network, seeking police protection often becomes counterproductive.
For the younger CSS, a strategy of protection is being perceived as a victim or a potential victim of night-time assaults. They know that physical appearance is an asset, and even a type of life insurance. Their ‘babyish’ features trigger culpability in adults for their protection. Besides, they can build a mutually beneficial relationship with the police. They often do small favours for the police officers they regularly interact: buying cigarettes or newspapers, or shoe shining.
CSS speak in narrated dialogue. Narrated dialogue carries out a function. It is used as proof or illustration of what the child says. In this case, we are mostly describing children with well-developed verbal skills, who are capable of recounting events and commenting on them. These children, by inference, is then from a group of older children of research groups.
When the street becomes the living environment, it conditions the survival strategies. Streets are not lived in the same manner by all children, though. Yet the manner in which they do experience the streets influences their strategies. By definition, the streets are ambivalent, presenting a combination of constraints and liberties, of violence and complicity, of dangers and survival opportunities. This mixture produces pleasure and suffering, alliances and separations.
The contradiction during interviews is often the result of these conflict. It may also point to an elaborate strategy CSS use for protection: camouflage.
A twelve-year old can, and often does, claim he is ten, nine, six or even fifteen, depending on the opportunity he can exploit or the survival threat he perceives. They are the sole judge of when, how, why and to whom they will confide. Thus, the camouflage strategy concerns not only the personal safety of children, but also their identity.
Sometimes, proving themselves to be a minor is favourable to safety. For the older children, such certificates serve to prove that they are still minors. Sometimes they may hold a dead child’s certificate. This paper provides him with a relative security in his contact with the police. A child may even hide his name and use someone’s name who actually exists.
Camouflage is widely used among CSS. It does not consist solely of simple forms of strategy, such as changes of identity, manipulation of nicknames, or of age. It can grow into other dimensions. In the streets, the need for safety is the priority, and most children’s survival strategies are conditioned by it.
The code of silence and controlled visibility are interdependent because children know everything that goes on in the streets. They know what each of them is doing and has done in the past. There are no secrets between them.
The use of force alone does not guarantee survival on the streets. It engenders respect only if this strength comes with other skills: if the children can use their strength to accompany their resources. Brute force does not bring about any long-term benefits. It is chiefly the symbolic skillset that coveys power, and the more a child’s skills are developed, the easier it is for the child to impose themselves. Indeed, when children make use of their entire persona, and not just their physical strength, they value themselves more highly and allow their resources to expand.
CSS are not mere victims of poverty and inequality, leading a life that is always governed by chance. They are social actors, using opportunities, often creating systems of opportunities on their path. Home and other institutions may not provide such autonomy. These skills are better seen as valuable life skills rather than residues of trauma.
The concepts can also help explain why CSS fail to sustain long-term employment in the informal market.
Gathering reliable information from CSS is a significant challenge, and here, both the method and the context should be considered. CSS often develop a strong ability to tell stories as a survival strategy, as a means to earn money, sell flowers, hide identity for safety among other concerns. They frequently life about their ages, family backgrounds, reasons for being on the streets, and their current situations. For these children, presenting themselves in certain ways is a crucial part of their survival skills, similar to those used by nomadic entertainers who manipulate their audiences because of professional needs.
One example is a boy who gave conflicting reasons for being in a state reformatory: to one person, he said it was due to his father’s abuse, and to another, he claimed it was because he was abandoned. The researchers also reported observing three siblings who changed their behaviour from playing happily to acting as if they were starving and abandoned when they saw a potential benefactor, despite their mother being nearby.
These children manipulate information for several reasons. It’s not just about survival; it’s also a way for them to respond to a society that often ignores or devalues them. By altering their stories, they exert some control over their environment and the perceptions of those around them.
Understanding the real context/s behind their life situations is difficult due to these layers of misinformation. Recognizing complexity and adaptability of these children is essential. Here the role of theories cannot be more important.
Historically, Children in Street Situations (CSS) were often viewed as a consequence of wider socio-economic challenges. While these factors play a role, focusing solely on them can cloud our understanding rather than aid it.
It's crucial to recognize the differences among children in terms of their family's socio-economic status. Not all children who face similar deficiencies in emotional and material support end up on the streets, and the reasons behind this are not yet fully understood. If socio-economic hardship were the only factor, cities in Latin America would be flooded with children. This suggests that other factors influence their decision to stay or leave home.
Interventions for these children typically focus on immediate needs like health care, injury treatment, and safety from harm. This is deontologically sound. However, solely focusing on ‘band-aid’ approach often lacks the depth and duration needed for effective, long-term interventions with these children, thus diminishing its impact.
To better support CSS, it's essential to analyze how they interact with their environmental elements and the city itself. Understanding the elements of street life that children rely on for survival can help refocus intervention strategies towards these elements rather than solely on the children.
Regarding the physical and temporal dimensions, CSS usually lacks a defined territory. Their gradual transition to street life is influenced by various factors, including their perception of street life and triggering events such as family violence or economic hardship. However, neither poverty nor violence alone can fully explain a child's move to the streets. The subjective experience of these factors and the child's interpretation plays a significant role in their decision. Not all children attribute the same degree to violent experiences.
There are three primary perspectives in the street versus family dynamic:
Sociocultural learning plays a vital role in the lives of children in impoverished urban areas. According to Lev Vygotsky's theory, social interactions and cultural experiences are crucial for cognitive and social development. The street serves as a setting for early socialization, where children learn and develop outside of structured group settings like those found in schools. Younger children form dyads and triads, as school children form duos and trios.
Street activities for CSS are not uniformly defined. The presence and influence of dominant individuals among the children can shape their experiences and behaviours. Without adult supervision, these figures often become role models. The street's multifunctional nature, offering access to transportation, commerce, services, and leisure, also contributes to their socialization.
The process of socialization into a subculture on the streets includes several elements:
These elements concerning the streets are not exhaustive; they are presented merely to highlight the activities that occur during the transition period when a child goes from being at home to venturing out into the street.
To be continued…
The dominant rhetoric on ‘street children’ intended for the general public, politicians and funders was marked by an assurance. That we know who ‘street children’ are, where they come from, and how to ‘fix’ them. When we named a population ignoring undergoing a process that encapsulates multiple dimensions, we felt a false assurance that we have figured something out. The term ‘street children’, however, does nothing but tell us where they are seen. It limits inquiries rather than prompting them. It also stigmatizes a population, associating them with the streets, which is also deceitfully viewed as dirty, dangerous and unpredictable, by the very people who use them on a daily basis. A street child cannot be identified, and much less easily defined, for he or she is a process, constantly evolving. A street child is not simply an object located in space and time.
By naming these children as ‘street children’, they become visible and take on a new identity, both for themselves and people around them, as labeling theory would suggest. The naming process is twofold. On one hand, there is the standard of norms the child does not live by and the enumeration of the ‘causes’ behind this condition. These norms are what define the ‘street children’ as out of place.
The naming process also entails the quantification of these children. It means knowing how many children are on the streets, how many of them disappear, and how many get off the streets. It makes possible a quantified assessment of the situation in order to legitimize interventions and funding, both by the state and NGOs. This quantification is doomed to fail; we cannot add up qualities: identity, feelings, motivations, character, action, relation with others, and so on. The naming process of ‘street children’, then, I closely linked to the child’s objectification. When a child is designated as a ‘street child’, he or she becomes an object of intervention, which can be legitimized by science, social accountability and kindness. Someone charismatic will certainly rise up and try to ‘make an impact’, without trying to understand what that impact is. The ethos of ‘doing something than nothing’ pervades the non-profit landscape when it comes to ‘street children’.
While researching interventions and theories of change, which normality should we use to claim that a ‘street child’ is a child living outside the norm? When does a child become a street child? What is the paradigm to which the researcher or social worker are referring to when they define their research ‘object’ or their ‘target group’? There are answers to these questions, but they differ depending on the ‘unit of measurement’ we choose to use to define normality.
Human beings cannot have substantial ontology; they can only be relationally defined. The substantialist version of the ‘street child’ as an object is both stigmatizing and ontologically problematic. Any definition of a population demonstrates only the perspective of the definer. Every time in human history such substantialist reductions took precedence over relational identities, it resulted in massacre.
Better terms have been developed by Scholars and the UN. ‘Children in Street Situations’ (CSS) or ‘Children living or working on the streets’ are more comprehensive. They also serve a heuristic function while protecting these children from stigmatization, which is a handy tool to marginalize a population created by the urbanization of a city.