Street children

An Afghan street boy photographed in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan (June 2003).

Street children is a term for children experiencing homelessness who are living on the streets of a city, town, or village. Homeless youth are often called street kids and street youth; the definition of street children is contested, but many practitioners and policymakers use UNICEF’s concept of boys and girls, aged under 18 years, for whom "the street" (including unoccupied dwellings and wasteland) has become home and/or their source of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected or supervised.[1]

Street girls are sometimes called gamines,[2][3][4][5] a term that is also used for Colombian street children of either sex.[6][7][8]

Some street children, notably in more developed nations, are part of a subcategory called thrownaway children who are children that have been forced to leave home. Thrown-away children are more likely to come from single-parent homes.[9] Street children are often subject to abuse, neglect, exploitation, or, in extreme cases, murder by "clean-up squads" that have been hired by local businesses or police.[10] In Western societies, such children are treated as homeless children rather than criminals or beggars.


Street children is used as a catch-all term, but covers children in a wide variety of circumstances and with a wide variety of characteristics. Policymakers and service providers struggle to describe and assist such a sub-population. Individual girls and boys of all ages are found living and working in public spaces, and are visible in the great majority of the world’s urban centers.

Statistics and distribution

Street children can be found in a large majority of the world's cities, with the phenomenon more prevalent in densely populated urban hubs of developing or economically unstable regions, such as countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia.[11]

According to a report from the Consortium for Street Children, a United Kingdom-based consortium of related non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UNICEF estimated that 100 million children were growing up on urban streets around the world. Fourteen years later, in 2002, UNICEF similarly reported, "The latest estimates put the numbers of these children as high as one hundred million". More recently the organization added, "The exact number of street children is impossible to quantify, but the figure almost certainly runs into tens of millions across the world. It is likely that the numbers are increasing."[12] The one hundred million figure is still commonly cited for street children, but has no basis in fact.[13][14][15] Similarly, it is debatable whether numbers of street children are growing globally, or whether it is the awareness of street children within societies that has grown.[12]


Children sleeping in Mulberry Street, New York City, 1890 (Jacob Riis photo)

The phenomenon of street children has been documented as far back as 1848. Alan Ball, in the introduction to his book on the history of abandoned children, And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia, 1918–1930, states:

Orphaned and abandoned children have been a source of misery from earliest times. They apparently accounted for most of the boy prostitutes in Augustan Rome and, a few centuries later, moved a church council of 442 in southern Gaul to declare: "Concerning abandoned children: there is general complaint that they are nowadays exposed more to dogs than to kindness."[16] In Tsarist Russia, seventeenth-century sources described destitute youths roaming the streets, and the phenomenon survived every attempt at eradication thereafter. [17]

In 1848, Lord Ashley referred to more than 30,000 "naked, filthy, roaming lawless, and deserted children" in and around London, UK.[18] By 1922, there were at least seven million homeless children in Russia due to the devastation from World War I and the Russian Civil War.[19] Abandoned children formed gangs, created their own argot, and engaged in petty theft and prostitution.[20]


The causes of this phenomenon are varied, but are often related to domestic, economic, or social disruption including, but not limited to: poverty; breakdown of homes and/or families; political unrest; acculturation; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; domestic violence; lured away by pimps, Internet predators, or begging syndicates; mental health problems; substance abuse; and sexual orientation or gender identity issues.[21] Children may end up on the streets due to cultural factors. For example, some children in parts of Congo and Uganda are made to leave their family; because, they are suspected to be witches who bring bad luck upon their family. In Afghanistan, young girls who perform "honor crimes" that shame their family and/or cultural practices—like adultery (which may include rape or sexual abuse) or who refuse an arranged marriage—may be forced to leave their homes.[22]

Children may also end up on the streets due to religious factors. For example, some children in the far-northern parts of Nigeria (referred to as the almajiris) are forced to leave their homes to indenture them under a mallam (Islamic religious teacher), for them to understand the teachings of the Holy Quran. During the period of indenture, these children are forced to beg in the streets for alms as their daily livelihood. In most circumstances, they are compelled to make returns from their daily proceeds to the mallam, failure to do which means severe punishment.[23]

By country




UNICEF works with CARITAS and other non-governmental organizations in Egypt to address street children.[24] The increase in the number of NGOs targeting the issue has broadened the scale of intervention to reach a far greater number of street children and their families.[25]


There are an estimated 250,000 street children in Kenya and over 60,000 in the capital Nairobi.[26] Rapid and unsustainable urbanization in the post-colonial period, which led to entrenched urban poverty in cities such as Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa is an underlying cause of child homelessness. Rural-urban migration broke up extended families which had previously acted as a support network, taking care of children in cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.[26]

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that glue sniffing is at the core of "street culture" in Nairobi, and that the majority of street children in the city are habitual solvent users.[26] Research conducted by Cottrell-Boyce for the African Journal of Drug and Alcohol Studies found that glue sniffing amongst Kenyan street children was primarily functional – dulling the senses against the hardship of life on the street – but it also provided a link to the support structure of the ‘street family’ as a potent symbol of shared experience.[26]

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone was considered to be the poorest nation in the world, according to the UN World Poverty Index 2008. Whilst the current picture is more optimistic – World Bank projections for 2013/14 ranked Sierra Leone as having the second fastest-growing economy in the world – a prevalent lack of child rights and extreme poverty remain widespread. There are close to 50,000 children relying upon the streets for their survival, a portion of them living full-time on the streets.[27] There are also an estimated 300,000 children in Sierra Leone without access to education.[27] Often neglected rural areas – of which there are many – offer little or no opportunity for children to break from the existing cycle of poverty.



A street child in Bangladesh

No recent statistics of street children in Bangladesh is available. UNICEF puts the number above 670,000 referring to a study conducted by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, "Estimation of the Size of Street Children and their Projection for Major Urban Areas of Bangladesh, 2005". About 36% of these children are in the capital city Dhaka according to the same study. Though Bangladesh improved the Human Capital Index over the decades, (HDI is 0.558 according to 2014 HDR of UNDP and Bangladesh at 142 among 187 countries and territories), these children still represent the absolute lowest level in the social hierarchy. The same study projected the number of street children to be 1.14m in year 2014.[28][29][30]


Two street children in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

India has an estimated one million or more street children in each of the following cities: New Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai.[31] When considering India as a whole, there are over eleven million children who earn their living off the streets in cities and rural areas.[32] It is more common for street children to be male and the average age is fourteen. Although adolescent girls are more protected by families than boys are, when girls do break the bonds they are often worse off than boys are, as they are lured into prostitution.[33] The Republic of India is the seventh-largest and second-most populated country in the world. Due to the acceleration in economic growth, an economic rift has appeared, with just over thirty-two per cent of the population living below the poverty line.[34] Owing to unemployment, increasing rural-urban migration, the attraction of city life, and a lack of political will, India has developed one of the largest child labor forces in the world.


According to a 2007 study, there were over 170,000 street children living in Indonesia.[35] In 2000, about 1,600 children were living on the streets of Yogyakarta. Approximately five hundred of these children were girls from the ages of four–sixteen years of age.[36] Many children began living on the streets after the 1997 financial crisis in Indonesia. Girls living on the street face more difficulties than boys living on the street in Indonesia. Girls on the street are often abused by the street boys because of the patriarchal nature of the culture. "They abuse girls, refuse to acknowledge them as street children but liken them to prostitutes".[36] Many girls become dependent on boyfriends; they receive material support in exchange for sex.

The street children in Indonesia are seen as a public nuisance. "They are detained, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, their means of livelihood (guitars for busking, goods for sale) confiscated, and some have been shot attempting to flee the police".[36]


There are between 60,000 and 200,000 street children in Iran (2016).[37]


The number of street children in Pakistan is estimated to be between 1.2 million[38][39] and 1.5 million, meaning that the country has one of the world's largest street children populations. Although, this number remains anecdotal since it was cited over ten years ago. There has been no head-count or a mapping study of street children in Pakistan except couple of large metropolitan cities such as Karachi and Lahore. These studies were also geographically and scope-wise limited. These studies show that the numbers maybe much higher now after the increasing poverty, people's displacement after the natural disasters and war on terrorism in Pakistan. Most recently, Social Welfare Department of Sindh has conducted a mapping study of street children in all of Karachi only. Past efforts have been initiated by UNICEF and other NGOs to assist children in need through various programs and rehabilitation centers; however, the situation remains as a prominent socio-economic issue in Pakistan during the 21st century.

The Philippines

According to the 1998 report titled "Situation of the Youth in the Philippines", there are about 1.5 million street children in the Philippines,[40] 70% of which are boys. Street children as young as ten years old can be imprisoned alongside adults under the country's Vagrancy Act; in past cases, physical and sexual abuse have occurred as a result of this legislation.[41]


According to The Street Educators’ Club, the number of street children in Vietnam has shrunk from 21,000 in 2003 to 8,000 in 2007. The number dropped from 1,507 to 113 in Hanoi and from 8,507 to 794 in Ho Chi Minh City.[42] There are currently almost four hundred humanitarian organizations and international non-governmental organizations providing help to about 15,000 Vietnamese children.[43]


As of 2006, around 22,000 Australian youth were listed as homeless. The majority of homeless youth are located in the State of New South Wales. Youth homelessness has been subject to a number of independent studies, some calling for the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct an inquiry on the matter.[44]



Greece’s street child activity is heavily connected with human trafficking, especially with immigrants from Albania.[45] In 2003, street children located in state-run facilities had disappeared. The disappearance is suspected to be linked to human trafficking.[45] The numbers have decreased in recent years, and Greece has taken "legislative action to criminalize human trafficking and related crimes", though Amnesty International reports that the problem still exists, and there is a failure of government protection and justice of trafficked children.[45]

Begging and other street activities have been outlawed in Greece since 2003, but the recent unemployment hike has increased levels of these actions.[45]

There are few programs for displaced children in Greece, which created a street child problem in the early 2000s. Giving foster parents to special needs children is not something the Greek government has done, leading to higher numbers of physically or mentally disabled street children.[45] There are also deterrents for working and poor parents in Greece making them more willing to force their children to the streets. For example, orphans are given financial benefits, but if they live in state-run facilities they cannot receive these benefits. For working parents to get government subsidies, they often have to have more than one child.[45]


Romanian ration card, 1989. The forced natalist policy of Nicolae Ceauşescu coupled with poverty led families unable to cope
Children Underground a 2001 documentary film directed by Edet Belzberg, depectinng street children in Romania
Further information: Decree 770 and Romanian orphans

The phenomenon of street children in Romania must be understood within the local historical context. In 1966, in communist Romania, ruler Nicolae Ceauşescu outlawed contraception and abortion, enacting an aggressive natalist policy, in an effort to increase the population. As families were not able to cope, thousands of unwanted children were placed in state orphanages where they faced terrible conditions. Under communism, the struggle of families was made worse in the 1980s, under the 1980s austerity policy in Romania, when living standards dropped dramatically, and food was rationed; and the fall of communism in December 1989 initially meant economic and social insecurity. Under such conditions, in the 1990s, many children moved onto the streets, with some being from the orphanages, while others being runaways from impoverished families. During the transition period from communism to market economy in the 1990s, social issues such as those of these children were low on the government's agenda. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century things were improving. A 2000 report from the Council of Europe estimated that there were approximately 1,000 street children in the city of Bucharest. The prevalence of street children has led to a burgeoning sex tourism business in Romania; although, efforts have been made to decrease the number of street children in the country.[46] The 2001 documentary film Children Underground documents the plight of Romanian street children, in particular their struggles with malnutrition, sexual exploitation, and substance abuse. In the 1990s, street children were often seen begging, inhaling 'aurolac' from sniffing bags, and roaming around the Bucharest Metro. In the 21st century, the numbers of children living permanently in the streets dropped significantly, although more children worked on streets all day, but returned at home to their parents at night. By 2004, it was estimated that less than 500 children lived permanently in the streets in Bucharest, while less than 1,500 worked in the streets during the day, returning home to their families in the evening.[47] By 2014, the street children of the 1990s were adults, and many were reported to be living 'underground' in the tunnels and sewers beneath the streets of Bucharest, with some having their own children.[48]


In 2001, it was estimated that Russia had about one million street children,[49] and one in four crimes involved underage individuals. Officially, the number of children without supervision is more than 700,000. However, experts believe the real figure has since risen to between two and four million.[50]

According to UNICEF, there were 64,000 homeless street children brought to hospitals by various governmental services (e.g. police) in 2005. In 2008, the number was 60,000.[51]

Overall number of Russian children that lost their parents' support by the end of 2011 was 654,355.[52] This number includes 522,802 kids being on fostergage or adopted, and 105,688 kids in orphanages.


Of Turkey's 30,891 street children, 30,109 live in İstanbul, research conducted by the Prime Ministry's Human Rights Presidency (BİHB) has shown. Of the street children, 20 were identified in Ankara, and Turkey's third-largest city, İzmir, had none. Kocaeli province was reported to have 687 street children while Eskişehir has 47. The research also revealed that 41,000 children are forced to beg on the streets, more than half of whom are found in İstanbul. Other cities with high figures include Ankara (6,700), Diyarbakır (3,300), Mersin (637) and Van (640).

Based on unofficial estimates, 88,000 children in Turkey live on the streets, and the country has the fourth-highest rate of underage substance abuse in the world. 4 percent of all children in Turkey are subject to sexual abuse, with 70 percent of the victims being younger than 10. Contrary to popular belief, boys are subject to sexual abuse as frequently as girls. In reported cases of children subject to commercial sexual exploitation, 77 percent of the children came from broken homes. Twenty-three percent lived with their parents, but in those homes domestic violence was common. The biggest risk faced by children who run away and live on the street is sexual exploitation. Children kidnapped from southeastern provinces are forced into prostitution here. Today, it is impossible to say for certain how many children in Turkey are being subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, but many say official information is off by at least 85 percent.[53]

Latin America

According to some estimates made in 1982 by UNICEF, there were forty million street children in Latin America,[54] most of whom work on the streets, but they do not necessarily live on the streets . A majority of the street children in Latin America are males between the ages of 10 and 14. There are two categories of street children in Latin America: home-based and street-based. Home-based children have homes and families to return to, while street-based children do not. A majority of street children in Latin America are home-based.[55]


The Brazilian government estimates that the number of children and adolescents in 2012 who work or sleep on the streets were approximately 23,973,[56] based on results from the national census mandated by the Human Rights Secretariat of the Presidency (SDH) and the Institute for Sustainable Development (Idesp).[57]

North America

United States

Homeless children in the United States[58] The number of homeless children reached record highs in 2011,[59] 2012,[60] and 2013[61] at about three times their number in 1983.[60]

The number of homeless children in the US grew from 1.2 million in 2007 to 1.6 million in 2010. The United States defines homelessness per McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act.[62] The number of homeless children reached record highs in 2011,[59] 2012,[60] and 2013[61] at about three times their number in 1983.[60] An "estimated two million [youth] run away from or are forced out of their homes each year" in the United States.[21] The difference in these numbers can be attributed to the temporary nature of street children in the United States, unlike the more permanent state in developing countries.

Street children in the United States tend to stay in the state, 83% do not leave their state of origin.[63] If they leave, street children are likely to end up in large cities, notably New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.[64] Street children are predominantly Caucasian and female in the United States, and 42% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).[65]

The United States government has been making efforts since the late 1970s to accommodate this section of the population. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1978 made funding available for shelters and funded the National Runaway Switchboard. Other efforts include the Child Abuse and Treatment Act of 1974, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.[66] There has also been a decline of arrest rates in street youth, dropping in 30,000 arrests from 1998 to 2007. Instead, the authorities are referring homeless youth to state-run social service agencies.[67]

Homeless College Youth

The homeless college youth accounts for over one million of the young homeless population.[68] According to the Free Application Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, in 2013, over 58,000 students identified as homeless on their application.[69] "The federal government defines these unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) as individuals who do not have “fixed, regular and adequate” housing and who are “not in the physical custody of a parent or adult.”[70] The McKinney Vento Act is considered the key piece of federal legislation pertaining to educational support for homeless children and teens.[71] The causes of homelessness varies from student to student. There are two types of homeless college students: 1. students that are homeless upon entering college and 2. students who become homeless during college.[72] For the youth that become homeless upon entering college, this situation represents the students that are having trouble sustaining housing due to job loss of their parent or guardian, the lack of a parent or guardian or because youth has been asked to leave the home or decided to runaway.[73] The reasons for a college youth to become homeless while attending college are as follows: unable to sustain the financial expenses for housing and food. Second, by having the financial support given by family revoked.[74] Fortunately, there are programs available at state colleges and universities that provide students with the necessary resources to obtain financial and housing stability and sustainability. There are also organizations such as the National Association For The Education Of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) that advocate for a higher education so the children and youth can fulfil their dreams.[75]

Government and non-government responses

Responses by governments

While some governments have implemented programs to deal with street children, the general solution involves placing the children into orphanages, juvenile homes, or correctional institutions.[76][77] Efforts have been made by various governments to support or partner with non-government organizations.[78] In Colombia, the government has tried to implement programs to put these children in state-run homes, but efforts have largely failed, and street children have become a victim group of social cleansing by the National Police; because, they are assumed to be drug users and criminals.[79] In Australia, the primary response to homelessness is the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). The program is limited in its effectiveness. An estimated one in two young people who seek a bed from SAAP is turned away because services are full.[44]

Public approaches to street children

There are four categories of how societies deal with street children: Correctional model, Rehabilitative model, Outreach strategies, and Preventive approach.

NGO responses

Non-government organizations employ a wide variety of strategies to address the needs and rights of street children. One example of NGO effort is "The Street Children‘s Day", launched by Jugend Eine Welt on 31 January 2009 to highlight the situation of street children. The "Street Children's Day" has been commemorated every year since its inception in 2009.[81]

Street children differ in age, gender, ethnicity, social class, and these children have had different experiences throughout their lifetimes. UNICEF differentiates between the different types of children living on the street in three different categories: candidates for the street (street children who work and hang out on the streets), children on the streets (children who work on the street but have a home to go to at night), and children of the street (children who live on the street without family support).[45]

Horatio Alger's book, Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871), is an early example of the appearance of street children in literature. The book follows the tale of a homeless girl who lives by her wits on the streets of New York, US. Other examples from popular fiction include Kim, from Kipling's novel of the same name, who is a street child in colonial India. Gavroche, in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Fagin's crew of child pickpockets in Oliver Twist, a similar group of child thieves in Funke's The Thief Lord, and Sherlock Holmes' "Baker Street Irregulars" are other notable examples of the presence of street children in popular works of literature.

During the mid-1970s in Australia, a number of youth refuges were established. These refuges were founded by local youth workers, providing crisis accommodation, soon began getting funding from the Australian government. In New South Wales, these early refuges include Caretakers Cottage, Young People's Refuge, Taldemunde among others. Within years of their founding, these refuges began receiving funding from the Department of Family and Community Services.[82]

See also


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  3. "Gamine - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 5 October 2014. Full Definition of GAMINE 1: a girl who hangs around on the streets [...]
  4. "gamine: definition of gamine in Oxford dictionary (British & World English)". Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved 5 October 2014. [...] 2 (dated) A female street urchin: 'I left school and fell in with some gamines'
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