Runaway: street kids in the USA

Who I am
Lluis Enric Mayans

Author and references

The phenomenon of street children in Latin America has rightly attracted the attention of world public opinion, but the emphasis placed on this region has meant that the same phenomenon was neglected in the United States of America, where street children they have been a dramatic social problem since the XNUMXth century.

The different consideration of American street children compared to their Latin American companions also partly depends on the definition given by American sociological literature: instead of "street children" we speak of "runaways" (children who run away from home), thus suggesting the idea of ​​children living on the street because they are rebellious, because they reject the values ​​of their parents or because they run away from domestic violence, therefore different from the Latin American street children that a widespread opinion wants on the street because of extreme poverty or their condition of orphans.

According to a research by the National Runaway Switchboard (emergency line for children who leave their homes), there are approx. 1.300.000. In Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico with 60.000 inhabitants, the day center for street children assisted more than 2001 children and young people in 1.100. In Santa Fe, poverty and marginalization mainly concern the Hispanic, indigenous and black population, but contrary to what one might expect, most of the street children are from the white middle class, very few are under 14 years old and 35% are girls and / or girls.

Many come from other American states and arrive in Santa Fe because it is "the last frontier", "the adventure", "mystical", "has a special energy". As for their Latin American companions, the place of socialization is the town square, where they meet to chat, observe the city, ask for alms; but unlike Brazilian, Mexican, or Nicaraguan boys, their friends are not only other street children, but also upper-class white boys.

If on the one hand "being on the street" constitutes a factor of social exclusion, on the other hand it also confers prestige: street children are considered "adventurers, interesting, tough, authentic, worthy of being emulated", and they know where and how to get LSD, ecstasis and other so-called party drugs that rich kids "need" for their parties.

Santa Fe is a tourist city whose streets "run around for money". According to the boys, it is easy to earn even 50 US $ a day just by begging, and you can also work a few days a week in the tourism or construction industry. Someone makes good money in drug trafficking. In fact, it strikes some street kids in Santa Fe that many have a credit card and a car that they need for travel and home (a used car costs as much as a low monthly rent). Someone has a cell phone and almost everyone has an e-mail address to keep in touch with other traveling street children and to communicate in a safe, non-threatening way with their parents.

If you ask a guy from Santa Fe why he is on the street, he will answer "to understand who I am", "I want to write a book about my life", "I'm looking for something more true", and " for bad relations with mine ". This last sentence almost always hides a taboo, something that is not talked about: according to data provided by the US government, 85% of US children and street children have been victims of sexual abuse committed within their families. Thus, if the Hispanic and indigenous communities of Santa Fe maintain a strong extended family structure that allows their children to take refuge from any family violence against their grandparents, an aunt or other relative, for the boys of the upper middle classes white does not remain than the road.

In Tompkins Square Park, New York, there is a population of boys similar to those in Santa Fe, but there is also another population made up of young Latinos and blacks who look much more like Latin American street children. Every day they move from the poorest areas of the megalopolis to Times Square where some NGOs offer their services.

According to street workers' estimates, there are approx. 50.000 children and street children. Despite the large number, they are invisible and the media and public opinion hardly take notice. On the other hand, it is the children themselves who do everything to remain invisible: being a minor and on the street is against the law and if the police identify a "runaway", this will be immediately traced back to his parents, or imprisoned, or still entrusted to the state health care.

Any of these options equates to a nightmare for kids. Hence, the boys dress in fashion with clothes stolen or donated by some NGO, they go every morning to a center where they can wash and settle down and then blend in with the "good" mass of the city. Many of these guys work in restaurants or shops or in the casual sector, but a minimum wage in New York is not enough to pay a minimum rent. The children and young people then sleep on the street, in parks or in the subways, disguised as much as possible to look like adults.

It could be inferred that the phenomenon of street children in New York resembles that of Latin America, caused primarily by extreme poverty and the high cost of living. But on closer inspection, the boys do not go to the streets because of poverty, but because of violence. Just like the young people of Santa Fe, the boys of New York are also fleeing violent family relationships.

State intervention and social assistance are not a solution: too often children have suffered, in addition to family violence, some form of abuse and exclusion by the state system: oppression by social workers, physical abuse and emotions in foster families, the perception of being considered "a problem" rather than "a person". Street children are on the run from families as much as they do from institutions.

Even in Latin America, the experience of street workers has now consolidated the thesis that poverty alone is not enough to push a child into the street: too many very poor children who have no intention of abandoning their family and home, and too many now the street kids from the middle classes. Several researches have confirmed that at the basis of the "decision" to go to the street there is always some form of violence, whether it is suffered in the family, carried out by gangs or generated by a war situation.

So here too, the fundamental factor for a child to "go to the street" is violence. Violence also exists on the street, but it is a less certain violence: at home the abuse is daily and there is nowhere to escape, while on the street, and especially in the city centers, violence is less regular. in a group, maybe you can escape or disguise yourself. Violence is perhaps more controllable.

The difference between an American street child and a Latin American child certainly exists and can also be great, but perhaps it is mainly due to the socio-environmental conditions that require different survival strategies. In fact, in some Latin American cities, especially in Colombian ones, street children more and more often engage in “runaway” behaviors. The economic crisis and civil war have drastically reduced the chance to survive by begging, and the murderous violence of death squads continues to increase: street children therefore try to dress like rich kids and make a living by stealing.

On the other hand, the same "runaways" define themselves not with the name assigned to them by literature, but "street kids", and to the educator who tells of his upcoming trip to Brazil, a boy of Santa Fe street responds: “I've heard there are a lot of us there.

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