Changing Paradigms for Working with Street
Youth: The Experience of Street Kids International1
Street Kids International
Citation: Sauvé, Stephanie. “Changing Paradigms for Working with
Street Youth: The Experience of Street Kids International.” Children,
Youth and Environments 13(1), Spring 2003. Retrieved [date] from
The United Nations estimates 100 million street youth across the
globe. They are products of poverty, war, urbanization, political
instability, family breakdown, and HIV/AIDS, among others. Many are
not homeless, but primary income earners for their extended families.
Many participate in the sex and drug trade because of limited income
generation alternatives. How can we support these youth and increase
their opportunities while respecting them as independent actors in
their own lives? Street Kids International suggests a critical paradigm
shift as the basis for being responsive and effective and describes its
approaches for working with street youth as participants and assets
within their present communities.
Keywords: street children; paradigms of childhood; children’s
As urbanization makes its way across the globe, many of the world’s
poorest youth make their way into the city streets, searching for
money, friends, and sometimes a future. The greatest surge of urban
migration in the upcoming years will occur in developing countries-
countries with the least financial resources, the least power, and the
least support for street youth. The Population Reference Bureau
(2003) estimates that the ten largest urban centers in 2015 will
include Mumbai, Lagos, Dhaka, São Paulo, Karachi, Mexico City,
Jakarta, and Calcutta, which not surprisingly are some of the cities
with the largest and fastest growing street youth populations.
The United Nations states that 40 percent of young people in the least
developed countries live on less than US$1 per day (UNICEF 2000).
Many of these youth are among the over 100 million youth worldwide
working and sometimes living on the street (CIDA 2001). During the
recent years of unprecedented urbanization, front-line workers have
witnessed the numbers of street youth grow drastically.
While street youth are not confined to the poor countries, in
developing nations, war, conflict, disease, abuse, and political
instability make poverty worse, stressing many families to the point of
disintegration. Some youth come with their families from rural life to
city life, tempted by the urban, and often empty, promise of work and
opportunity. Some youth, after being orphaned, abandoned, or lost,
make their own way to the city in search of work, or at least money.
Other youth without parents live with uncles and cousins on the fringes
of town and are sent to the streets to find money to support the too
many children in one household. The forces that lead growing numbers
of youth to the street are numerous and complex.
For many street youth, family and community support disintegrate
under the pressures of poverty. Many of those who migrate to the
streets learn quickly to confront the street with self-sufficiency and
self-determination, to make money by whatever means, and to
negotiate the everyday risks and decisions of street life. But although
they may get by, and even stay free of illicit work, they become
“street kids” and the stigmatizing label, once set, is hard to remove.
Especially in developing countries, few social services exist for the
youth who have lived or worked on the streets. These youth, mostly
10 to 20 years old, seem easier to forget than to support. However,
today’s youth will become the largest generation to enter adulthood
(UNESCO 1999) and will greatly influence the global economy.
Supporting the street youth within this population enhances their
potential to escape the cycle of poverty into which they were born.
With youth being a large segment of total populations, ignoring any
members of this generation, including youth involved in the street,
risks future economic and societal development.
So, do we view street youth as a problem to solve or an asset to
value? There are problems to solve: the causes that push and pull
youth into the street; the lack of policies enabling street youth to
improve their lives; and the shortage of accessible grass-roots services
supporting street youths’ needs. These problems must be solved.
However, street youth can also be assets to their communities and
society at large. For them to be full participants, we must open doors
for them to reintegrate into their communities.
Street Kids International
Street Kids International (SKI) is an international charity based in
Canada that aims to give street youth the choices, skills, and
opportunities to make better lives for themselves. SKI receives its
funding from a combination of sources including government,
foundations, corporations and individual donors. With this generous
support, SKI has worked with front-line workers and street youth on
every continent, with a current focus in Africa, South America, and
Central Asia. SKI intentionally uses a small permanent staff team that
collaborates with a broad network of partner organizations, regional
advisors, consultants, and volunteers (see www.streetkids.org).
Subsequent to being founded in 1988 by Peter Dalglish, SKI has
worked to build the respectful and trusting relationships needed to
engage the hardest-to-serve youth in transforming their lives. SKI
learned by taking risks in this underdeveloped area of work, by making
mistakes and documenting, analyzing, and sharing the lessons learned
from these mistakes, by insisting on a non-proprietary approach to its
materials and learning from how other organizations build on them, by
connecting with the network of youth-serving agencies around the
world and discovering that it will learn as much as it gives to these
relationships. Mostly, its success has come from including street youth
in the development of its methods and materials, depending on them
for their feedback and suggestions, and respecting them as
independent actors in their own lives and co-collaborators in efforts to
support them. It has come to understand that street youth have been
neglected for many reasons, but two most of all.
First, urbanization has created new territory for development agencies.
The development of best practices for urban-based international
support has not kept pace with the unprecedented rates of
urbanization over the past several years. Previously, development
focused on rural environments and rural issues characterized by more
homogeneous populations, communities rooted in tradition, and
lifestyles based on land ownership and extended families. The
fragmented nature of urban life, its high numbers of dislocated people,
and its extensive informal economy require new perspectives and
Second, few agencies have been willing to accept the challenges of
working with adolescents who have learned by necessity to be self-
sufficient, quick-witted, suspicious, and at times rebellious. Despite
describing their programs as youth-centered and youth-driven, many
agencies still work by the traditional paradigm of adult control of
youth- a paradigm in which adults assume responsibility for telling
youth what is important, how to behave, and what success means.
One of SKI’s partners, CECAFEC (The Ecuadorian Centre for the
Training and Formation of Street Educators) in Quito, Ecuador, has
become a leader in speaking out on the necessary shift to a new adult-
youth paradigm. CECAFEC calls the the old paradigm the “Paradigm of
Absence” in which children and youth are “absent” without a voice and
without recognition of their experience.
[W]e believe that when adults impose upon children what they have to
do, it’s because we see our role as directing children. When we as
adults disqualify the opinion of a child or adolescent, or when we
silence them, it’s because we see ourselves as ‘more’ than them.…
When as adults we consider ourselves obliged to provide for a child all
the knowledge that we believe they need, without considering what
they already know and their own opinion, it is because we view the
child as empty. The child is seen as void of any knowledge that we
haven’t imparted, void of opinions…of desires and hopes, void of tastes
and preferences, even void of feeling.… Because we see the child as
incapable and empty, we think he is controllable (CECAFEC 1997, 7).
A new paradigm which we could call the “Paradigm of the Child as
Person,” forces adults to confront their judgment of youths’ ideas as a
judgment stemming from the fear of something different from what is
We affirm that children and youth are equipped with expressions,
feelings, understandings, imagination, concerns, desires and hopes.
We affirm that children are also equipped with disagreements,
questions, criteria, dreams and complaints, utopias, initiatives,
relationships, necessities.…The issue is that we adults have a concept
of what is and isn’t knowledge and possibly we value certain
knowledge more than other knowledge– i.e., more rigorous, academic,
scientific knowledge.…When what others offer us is very different and
even challenges us, we have a tendency to value it less or even to
degrade it, to diminish its importance (CECAFEC 1977, 15).
The old paradigm still guides many decisions and actions. Many
organizations still think of youth in terms of the future rather than the
present, as future leaders of our ideal society rather than theirs, as
having valuable ideas but ideas limited by young age and immaturity.
In this way, societies create institutions inaccessible to youth. If adults
create a youth-serving organization based on the old paradigm, they
send youth the message that they have little to offer and should come
to their organization only to receive and learn. These adults often act
as if they know everything youth need without having to ask them.
Through their behavior, they tell youth that they cannot help
themselves but must depend on adults for help, that youth should
respect these adults even though these adults don’t respect them.
When youth don’t come to their programs, these adults and their
society often blame the youth. They say the population is too hard to
reach, too hard to work with, a waste of money. But is it really youth
who are difficult to reach or is it these organizations that are difficult
for youth to access? Do youth find that the services available are in
their best interest, do they believe they will be listened to and not
judged, do they think their opinions and experiences will count for
SKI works with a network of youth-serving agencies around the world
to increase the number of services accessible to youth, to facilitate a
shift to the Paradigm of Child as Person, and to foster further debate
and dialogue for advancing this paradigm.
Shifting Program Strategies
Shifting paradigms demands a shift in programmatic strategies. If we
see street youth as having something to offer rather than as empty
vessels needing to be filled and helped, we must intentionally build
programs that translate this belief system into action. First, we need
holistic programming. We must respect street youth as whole beings
with complex and interconnected life experiences. If we engage with
them on one aspect of life (such as income), we cannot avoid
considering how this aspect relates to other areas of their life (such as
health). Second, we need to build programs founded on what youth
bring to the relationship: their stories and all the dreams and choices
embedded within them. Third, we need to adopt a marketing mindset
so as to re-brand street youth and the nature of youth work in our
communications with the public and our relationships with adult, front-
line workers. These three programmatic approaches have become the
basis for all of SKI’s work.
SKI operates according to three overlapping and inextricable linked
foci: Street Health, Street Work, and Street Rights.
Its initial work began with Street Health, creating methods and tools
for communicating with street youth about sexual health, HIV/AIDS,
work in the sex trade, and drug use. Street youth do not choose to use
drugs or engage in risky sexual practices in an environment of obvious
answers or simple choices. They are constantly balancing the
satisfaction of immediate needs and benefits of short-term coping
strategies against the potential risks and future consequences of their
actions and decisions.
Typically, front-line workers in developing countries only have access
to materials about the negative effects of drug use, AIDS, and other
sexually transmitted infections. They often seek additional materials to
help street youth develop the skills for navigating through the real life
obstacles and decisions these health issues present.
SKI’s Street Health programs promote a shift away from the worker as
“expert advisor” and youth as “dependent client” to a relationship that
respects young peoples’ ability to articulate their own reality and
define their own goals and objectives. At the same time, the programs
introduce immediately useful harm-reduction and risk-management
life skills. Training workshops equip front-line workers with the
techniques for working with youth “where they are” and then
supporting them in moving towards lives of risk prevention and health
Though front-line workers and street youth alike immediately
embraced Street Health programs, it became clear that the needs of
street youth for money continued to supersede their desire to live
healthy and safe lives. Without supporting their need to earn a
livelihood, lifestyle changes that would contribute to their health were
Some street youth use the sex trade, drug trade, theft, and begging to
obtain money. Many sell goods on street corners, at bus stops, and
outside downtown shops. They make enough to survive, sometimes,
but usually their income does not grow nor enable them to improve
their quality of life.
We had to ask ourselves: How can we support these youth to develop
safer and more profitable ways of earning money? SKI had confronted
this question through the development and implementation of several
micro-credit and business training programs for street youth. With a
clearer vision of the inextricable link between health and income, SKI
used the lessons learned from regional work programs to develop the
Street Business Toolkit: a global business training program for front-
line workers to use with the street youth.
In all of SKI’s micro-credit and business training experiences, youth
repeatedly demonstrated that they could adapt their street expertise
and rapidly learn new business skills and use them for immediate and
positive gains in their lives and livelihoods.
We now know that street children who are able to contribute to the
household income can find an extended family member or household
willing to take them in. A street youth with savings or the potential for
disposable income will make choices about going to school full or part
time. SKI is at a stage with street youth that mirrors the skepticism
and debate 15 years ago about women as entrepreneurs with access
to credit. The same arguments prevail: “They have no land and no
assets. They are not reliable, they are uneducated, they lack legal
identity, and their families will take the money.” Today, no one would
question women as entrepreneurs, though many continue to question
the business capabilities of street youth. However, with business
training, street youth with micro-enterprises may become members of
their communities although these had previously seen them as
shiftless and threatening.
With the Street Business Toolkit launched, SKI’s Street Health and
Street Work programs are active and continue to grow in many world
regions with input and contributions from its global partnership
network. However, without local and international policy to support
street youth, SKI’s impact is limited. Its partners’ work suffers under
the continued neglect of street youth’s basic rights. Local culture and
government prejudices rarely allow street youth to break free of
stigma and prove themselves as valuable members of society.
Municipal government policies and local culture often create barriers to
street youths’ access to basic social and health services.
It became clear that SKI’s initiatives in Street Health and Street Work
required equal attention to Street Rights. While it acknowledges the
significance and importance of human rights treaties and legislation, in
its street-based practice, the denial of the positive rights of street
youth requires more attention– their right to work, their right to
access available health care without adult consent, their right to be
free from criminal sanctions due to lack of a birth registration or other
civil identity often by reason of being parentless from a young age.
Therefore, the Street Rights programming interventions on behalf of
street youth begins by working with police, local governments, and in
particular municipal governments, health clinicians, and youth court
workers, whose attitudes, biases, and perceptions can impact on the
day-to-day lives and rights of youth who live and or work on the
streets of our cities.
“Street Choices” captures this holistic programmatic approach. This
descriptive name is intentional and reflects the most important part of
what SKI does, and its approach. SKI promotes interactions with street
youth based on opening dialogue with them around the choices they
are making and how to enlarge the range of safer choices they might
The Use of Stories
To every relationship, street youth bring their stories of personal
experiences, ideas, feelings, and dreams. If we do not base our
relationships with youth on hearing these stories and learning from
them, then we are still working according to the old paradigm. If we
do want to hear these stories, we must first create a trusting
environment where sharing can take place and where street youth do
not fear judgment or reprimand for the lives they have lived.
Through 15 years of meeting the world’s street youth, SKI has learned
that one of the most effective ways to create a trusting environment is
through its own storytelling. Specifically, it shares fictional stories and
vignettes, based on its work experience, that have street youth as
their main characters.
It uses these stories to create a space where lived stories can be
shared safely. It has found that street youth are comfortable
discussing their thoughts and experiences in reference to a “fictional”
story’s characters and plot that mirrors their own thoughts and
experiences, without having to disclose personal information until they
Karate Kids and Goldtooth: Animations for Street Health
For example, Street Health programs use two animated films produced
by SKI in the late 80s and early 90s: Karate Kids, which addresses
HIV/AIDS and the sex trade, and Goldtooth, which addresses
substance abuse. Each video portrays the lives of street youth- their
humor, their friendships, their abuse, and their exploitation. At first
criticized for their explicit content, these videos soon became
internationally recognized for their capacity to facilitate dialogues with
street youth. Karate Kids, in particular, received the Peter F. Drucker
Award for Non-Profit Innovation in 1993.
The videos were not designed to define the signs and symptoms of
sexually transmitted diseases or drug addiction. Instead, the videos
aim to act as a medium that adults and street youth can share in
common and discuss openly. Youth workers play the videos with
groups of street youth and, on a second viewing, stop the video at
various points to hear the group’s thoughts on the characters and plot.
This is not a comprehension quiz, nor an interrogation; it is a time for
sharing and non-judgmental listening and discussion. Through these
dialogues street youth have shared their views on why the sex trade
sometimes appeals to them, how drugs help them get through the
night, who sells them their drugs, and what they fear most and want
most. Through these dialogues street youth have the opportunity,
sometimes their first, to openly contemplate the daily risks and
decisions they take and to discuss safer lifestyle alternatives and
choices with adults who listen to their perspectives and respect their
sense of personal autonomy. In this way, SKI’s Street Health
programs have used stories as a means for communication.
Speed’s Choice: Animation for Street Work
In SKI’s Street Work programs, stories also play a role as tools for
learning new skills. In developing the Street Business Toolkit, SKI
sought to identify the most effective way to advance street youths’
business knowledge and understanding, despite their low literacy and
numerical skills. Street youth always came to business training with
their own experience regarding pricing, customer retention, and the
like. SKI needed to find a way for them to realize how much they
already knew and then to build on that knowledge. It was soon clear
that business concepts were most accessible to street-involved youth
when introduced through a story instead of through definitions and
calculations. Much like the oral storytelling tradition, lessons stayed in
their memory and prompted new ideas and questions when first
introduced through anecdotes about other street youth.