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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 98 (Suppl.), August 2005


The Pastoral Care 

of Welcome for Street Children 


Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary of the Pontifical Council 

for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


Introduction: Real Situation and Sign of the Times

The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children must be protected from violence and abuse (Cf. art. 19), and that children must be prepared for responsible life in society (Cf. art. 29d). But how many children of poverty are there who have been thrown into the streets from a very tender age by hunger and a lack of affection, and who, for this reason, will very probably not have a place in society? Perhaps there are 100 million children (according to the Amnesty International report), or even 150 million (according to the International Labor Office) living on the streets of the cities of the South of the world. Indeed, there are probably 45 million in Latin America, 10 million in Africa, and 40 million in Asia. Europe is also experiencing this phenomenon, especially in the countries in its Eastern part. They are victims of family breakdown, wild urbanization, migration and the countless wars of our times.

These children are called in various ways, but their real life situation is basically the same. In Swahili they are called “chokora” (garbage eaters), or the “homeless” in English, or “pájaros fruteros” (blackbirds), “moineaux” (little sparrows), or “meninos de rua”, but it is all the same thing. They are always the street children we find in our metropolises begging, cleaning car windows, recycling trash or shining shoes in order to bring home some loose change in the evening, if they have a home. In the first case (if they have a home), they are children on the street, but there are also the children of the street, who are on the street permanently, and for whom the street is everything: mother, home, friend, and their only chance in life. They are lost children, who run away from the hell of their own “family” (if we can call it that way) where they are beaten, abused, raped and exploited. It is the street that welcomes and loves them just as they are.

Some have estimated a 3 to 1 ratio between the former (“children on the street”) and the latter (“of the street”). In some countries, children also end up on the street for reasons related to superstition, a result of ignorance. These children, for instance, are the so-called “ndoki” or “enfants sorciers”, i.e., children sorcerers. I think that one of the participants will talk to us about them.

Street children fall into the arms of this “mother-stepmother”, the street, with at least the momentary illusion of finding an “island” of salvation (which does not exist), where they can taste a little bit of freedom and experience strong emotions through the use of alcohol or drugs and transgressions. It can be observed that, in the beginning, it all seems like a game: petty thievery to survive, or even the search for a place to stay for the night. An abandoned building, the area under a bridge or a public park can turn into a scenario of a “wonderful” adventure, which they may like at first, and it can liberate them from the recurring sight of their mothers being beaten, their little brothers and sisters going hungry, violence and humiliation. This is why some of them may exclaim, “I am going on the street. It takes me as I am. I do what I want there and it doesn’t tell me that I am dirty or bad or that I steal and smoke. The street accepts me as I am and [even more so] loves me as I am”.

In this regard, however, in May of last year, Rev. Aldo Martini, in “OPAM”, added the following: “But just like in the well-known story of Peter Pan, ‘Captain Hook’ soon turns up. Being the son of the same asphalt mother’s womb, with the authority of an older brother, ‘Captain Hook’ is capable of countless disguises: he has the face of a drug dealer, an exploiter of prostitution, a Western tourist looking for easy sex, a procurer of fresh merchandise for the hideous sale of organs…but he can also have the eyes of a policeman or of citizens organized in death squads to rid the cities of street children by killing them like rats. (“Do you want to help keep the city clean? Collaborate by killing a child of the street,” a Rio newspaper wrote some time ago. In the past five years, approximately 16,400 children have been killed in Brazil.) At 13, many young girls are already pregnant, and their male counterparts have already had troubles with the police. For all of them the problem is to survive until tomorrow, with no plan in life, as long as the street is their home. Their lives are short and almost always end up tragically, making them disappear into nothingness.”

We have here before us what the Second Vatican Council called a sign of the times, from which ensues the Church’s duty to interpret it and make a commitment: “The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other” (G. S. 4).

I think that the opening citations in this talk indicate its inspiration well. Here, however, we would also like to stress the environmental context of “street dwellers”: that is, those who have no fixed dwelling place. This is also an object-subject of our Dicastery’s pastoral concern, which Chiara Amirante expressed in poetry in this way: “My home is the world, my land is the sky, my homeland is every man’s heart. Every person I meet is my treasure. In the obscurity of darkness there is my light; in the places of suffering humanity that cries out, there is my heart” (Chiara Amirante, “Stazione Termini. Storie di droga, aids, prostituzione”. See our review People on the Move, No. 90, 2003).

The Pastoral Care of Welcome for Street Children

Let us immediately say that – so it seems to us – there are two fundamental positions regarding the pastoral care of street children (but you will help us see more clearly). The first is related to the so-called Third World, where attention for them is most of all a commitment directed right to the street, where many children live because of frequent family and social problems, and also because of the meager economic means available for pastoral projects. This may also hold true, at least in part, for the Second World.

The other position is what we find in the First World, where the phenomenon is less acute and social means are available, so that all or almost all of the so-called “street children” are given, or can be given, refuge through projects supported by the civil authorities. In this way, they will be taken off the streets.

The objective of our reflection will be more along the lines of the second type of pastoral care, and more concretely adapted to Europe, because as you know, this meeting is primarily European, even though it is open to the world, as demonstrated by the presence of Observers from other continents.

For this purpose, we are considering some way of monitoring all the real situations and projects related to street children, at the different levels (Bishops’ Conferences, dioceses, religious communities) in order to achieve, hopefully, a certain degree of regional coordination of the various apostolic forces, along with a concrete agenda of diverse pastoral activities in order to foster a new, specific awareness regarding this problem as well. 

1. Children on and of the Street

Let us consider this reality from various viewpoints starting from what can be called a social survey. Is there a concrete situation that causes a child to be on the street? This involves understanding the reason in order to make a proper diagnosis that will lead to a tentative solution to the problem through an educational program. Of course, the child will ordinarily supply us with partial and subjective information that we have to take into consideration, but we can not limit ourselves to this.

As a matter of fact, the situation on the street covers very different life contexts, and we have to be familiar with them, and keep in mind, for example, some factors such as:

  • duration (the longer the duration, the more complicated will be the educational intervention);
  • lodging (the place where a child spends the night is not insignificant, and this can lead us to know more about his/her personal and group situation);
  • mobility (by tracing a child’s “history” of wandering, we can get to know him/her more easily);
  • strategies of survival (the small jobs children do are quite varied, either on their own initiative, or for a boss who controls or exploits them; theft, etc.);
  • relations with institutions (the ones that help them or have done so in the past);
  • marginalization (this can be a passing element or a permanent way of life).

Going on to analyze the family situation, in general the child has watched hes home fade away, and so the street represents a substitute for the family. Some family events are destabilizing (death, divorce, a new marriage, conflicts, tensions), and so the factors causing the breakup of the relations between the child and his/her family must be identified.

Moreover, considering the programs of educational welcome, these will have to be structured according to the child’s concrete case so that the various possibilities can be examined, and a future horizon of hope can be opened up for the child.

With regard to the subject, we stress the fact that a child is an original, concrete being who has his/her own value and dignity. Therefore, educational action is founded on this basis, which is achieved in the interpersonal relation between the child and the educator. What is also necessary is what we might call the pupil’s “protagonism” because the child is the only one who can answer questions such as: Why should I leave the street? Why should I go back home? Why should I get involved in a kind of formation, or live with a family?… 

2. The Educational Proposal

The initial social effort should be integrated into an educational relation that also rehabilitates the family, if this is possible, or through institutions that offer welcome, in the most difficult cases.

The educational team should therefore be able to arrive at an educational proposal (chosen, offered and applied, is a “personalized” manner) for the child or group of children.

What are the dimensions of the project? Naturally, these have to be sought by asking some questions about the child “on the street” namely:

  • How should the child be accompanied? This means offering an active presence that will invite the child to let him/herself be known and abandon the anonymity of the street. Our interlocutor will always be the child, but, if possible, also his/her family, which is the first element in a prospect of social integration.
  • What kind of welcome should then be given? So that when a child no longer “needs” the street, he/she must be offered a kind of refuge that somehow includes educational, formative and social dimensions.
  • What formation should be given? We have to consider formation that aims at rehabilitating the child, and this is normally carried out through schooling.
  • What is the goal? To “re-situate” the child in his/her own society and get him/her involved in a process that leads to some autonomy, with real prospects for social insertion. Here we can speak of liberation of the child.

3. Reintegration

It is useful to say a few words about this in reference to the social aspect.

First of all, reintegration has to be progressive: that is, it involves a slow, controlled process, especially with regard to the child’s family, which eliminates barriers of rejection and fosters acceptance. Here, too, schooling ought to be helpful.

  • Next, contact with the family has to be made, in order to convince the family to accept the child unconditionally and eliminate barriers between parents and children. In this, the educator proves to be a fundamental element.
  • Reintegration will have to be verified through opportune visits to the child’s family.

4. The Church’s Mission: A Response to a Sign of the Times

The mere fact that our meeting is taking place is a clear sign of an already existing and rather widespread ecclesial interest in street children. It also shows that through interactive synergies among all those involved, it is possible to lay dawn the foundations for a comparison and coordination of the various educational methods used in the sector of the marginalization and exploitation of minors, including sexual exploitation, under the standard of solidarity and cooperation. In our world meeting on the pastoral care of tourism in Bangkok (July 5-8, 2004), an expert testified that in his country 80% of street children are exploited sexually.

So let us start from one fixed point: this dramatic world of ours with its grave problems and apostolic opportunities cannot be excluded from the Church’s maternal concern. You are simultaneously witnesses and actors in this. Thanks also to this meeting, we will try to increase pastoral concern in this regard.

In conclusion, I will reiterate the tasks that will concern us during these days, as we proposed to you in our convocation letter:

To have more in depth knowledge about the dramatic situation of street children, and

To seek more appropriate solutions, also by attacking the causes of these situations at their roots, and getting everyone involved in order to give a pastoral response, albeit in a broad sense, to the problem of our children on and of the street.

In this way, an important overall objective emerges, as Universal Church and as members of local Churches: primarily, to give visibility to all the institutional and private forces, Christian associations, NGOs, grassroots workers, volunteers and groups working in favor of marginalized children. In all this, let us not forget entering into the territorial and parochial pastoral care, in addition to the specific pastoral care of human mobility.

This is our challenge today and our commitment as believers in Jesus Christ who loves the poor and the little ones in a preferential way, and, we can say, especially the homeless, those who live on the streets, as He did, although in a different way.