David Fortune is reintegrating the children and youth living on the streets into their families and communities. His novel approach mobilizes and engages families and communities to effectively address the circumstances that propel kids to live on the streets. His efforts are the first in South Africa to systematically consider both the needs of street kids and those of their families.
The New Idea
David Fortune believes that the problem of street children cannot be addressed in isolation of the family and the larger community. His organization, STREETS, is the first in South Africa to systematically implement long-term solutions to the problems of children living on the streets. At his special Drop-In Centers, David provides food, clothing, shelter, as well as job training, legal aid, and job placement services for older children. Unlike conventional programs for street children, which have a tendency to separate the children from their families, David's approach uses the provision of services and material comfort as a stepping-stone toward his main objective-helping children return to their families and communities.
STREETS staff emphasize the psychological development of street children. They work with the children and their families to address the reasons that children run away from home, concentrating on helping the children to develop new perceptions of life rooted in self-esteem, self-confidence, and personal responsibility. STREETS also assists parents in making arrangements for their children to return to school.
At the level of the wider community, STREETS uses drama and community workshops to raise awareness about the plight of street children. Children perform a play (co-written by David and a youth drama group from the neighborhoods where STREETS operates) for adults in the community in order to stimulate discussion and foster active involvement of the community in the development of "their" children.
The phenomenon of children and youth living on the streets is a worldwide one; however, it is a relatively recent problem for South Africa. Until the late 1980s, apartheid laws placed artificial constraints on urban migration, strictly controlling the influx of black South Africans to the "white" areas of the country. With the relaxation and eventual abandonment of "influx control" in the late 1980s, South Africa experienced a dramatic migration from rural to urban areas. Rapid urbanization, combined with economic and other social ills, resulted in a significant increase in the number of street children. Large numbers of the new urban migrants fail to find employment and sink into the degrading conditions of urban poverty that are distinct in kind and scale from rural subsistence living. Battling to get a toehold in the city, they struggle to provide the material and emotional support that children require. Families under such stress often cannot effectively care for their children's problems and needs. Neglect and abuse cause many children to feel compelled to leave home for what may at first seem a more free and exciting life on the streets.
In 1987, there were an estimated 5,000 street children in South Africa. By 1995, there were an estimated 10,000 street children between the ages of eight and seventeen, of whom 2,000 live in Cape Town. They are predominantly male (98 percent) and all black. Most of their activities are unlawful to some degree, ranging from petty offenses to more serious matters like as glue-sniffing, prostitution, drug use, and violent crimes such as fighting among themselves (often with rocks and knives), robbery, assault, and rape.
The children and youth living on the streets suffer from poor health, malnutrition, physical violence, psychological trauma, and the hostility of the public. They enter adulthood with little education, training, or means of supporting themselves other than what they have learned from the hardships of street life.
Government and private initiatives to aid street children, who rely almost exclusively on short-term relief and institutionalization, have been unsuccessful in either reducing the number of street children or meeting their long-term developmental needs. For children who have left home and taken to the streets, there are three kinds of places to go: voluntary shelters and homes, which suffer from limited resources; reformatories and "Places of Safety," to which runaways are referred involuntarily by the courts (they are guilty of an offense if they leave); and prisons. Most children see the institutions as lonely and frightening places. In a prison-like environment, children have their heads shaven and are often put together with older, more hardened children. They learn only to fear adults and respond to commands.
David's strategy is to act on three levels to address the causes of the street children problem: the level of the child, the family, and the community. At the level of the child, STREETS' warm and welcoming Drop-In-Center provides for the children's daily needs: food, safe shelter, clothing, showers, counseling, and medical and legal assistance. STREETS is currently expanding its programs to include basic educational and vocational training in woodwork, silk-screen, leatherwork, textile design, garment making, metalwork, and other skills that will enable the children to manufacture marketable items. STREETS links the skills training to job creation by identifying potential employers and possibilities for the employment of skilled and semi-skilled youth. In addition to imparting specific practical skills, STREETS serves to build up the children's self-esteem and self-confidence. Through this program, children are more prepared to go home and deal with the problems that they will encounter when they return home.
The workers at the Drop-In-Center use their initial "getting to know each other" conversations with children to obtain information that will be helpful in locating family members. STREETS visits families and engages them in discussions about their children who have left home. Together with the families, the workers discuss possible reasons for the child's running away and seek solutions. For example, if the child left due to dire poverty at home, STREETS links the family to governmental and nongovernmental organizations who can provide food, medical assistance, and clothing (families are usually not aware of the resources available in the community). Through interaction with both the child and the family, STREETS can sometimes identify one individual who is mistreating the child, and bring it to the attention of the family in a way that prevents or reduces further abuse. Where problems in the nuclear family prevent a child from returning home, STREETS seeks options in the extended family (aunts, uncles, grandparents, and older siblings).
At the community level, STREETS presents original plays that are performed to various communities to create awareness and mobilize them to become actively involved in helping street children. The drama depicts the lives of children on the street, their struggle for survival, the abuse and violence against them, their incarceration and deprivation. The play also depicts possible reasons for children leaving home, such as poverty, unemployment, hunger, and physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse. Discussions after the show are directed at eliciting responses to the question, "What can the community do about what we have seen?" STREETS solicits ideas from community women's, youth, and church groups and offers workshops covering financial management and project sustainability to communities wishing to start their own projects.
In addition to the staff at the Drop-In-Center, STREETS employs volunteer Street Workers, Field Workers, and Community Workers. The Street Workers walk a daily "beat" on the streets, locating children and directing them to the appropriate services. Through regular "streetwork" it is easier to identify new children on the streets and make an early intervention. Field Workers visit the families of children to provide in-home counseling and monitor progress, averaging between three and five families per day. The role of the Community Worker is to create public awareness, educate the community on the plight of youth, children and their families, and mobilize and involve members in active participation.
Since 1993, STREETS has worked with over 300 families in nineteen communities around the Western Cape Province. More than 200 children have been successfully reunited with their families, a sixty-six percent success rate. The Department of Social Services in the Western Cape has acknowledged STREETS as a model program. The Department is considering adopting this model for other projects in the field. Other organizations working with children on the streets have asked David to train their staff in the STREETS approach.
Having refined its approach and demonstrated its effectiveness in the Cape Town area, STREETS is now poised to make a measurable impact on the problem of homeless children across the country. David is now focussing on communicating the STREETS approach to government social service providers and other agencies working with street children.
Born in 1962, David lost his mother at the age of nine, and his father at age fourteen. The loss of his parents, particularly the fact that he did not allow this to have a negative effect on his life and personal ambition, was the main factor in his decision to work with young people. "The message that I felt I had to share with them was that we are all architects of our own futures. And that irrespective of what backgrounds we came from, we can determine our own futures." After completing secondary school, David worked in progressively higher clerical jobs for two large corporations. In 1983, he left the commercial world to study for the Catholic priesthood. While at the seminary, he also obtained a Child Care Worker Diploma through the National Association of Child Care Workers, and worked part-time as a professional actor with the Covenant Players. As a trained child care worker, he started working in shelters with children who had previously been living on the streets. David soon realized, however, that there were many children living on the streets who were receiving no care at all. He decided to commit himself to helping them. In 1989, he undertook a six-month study on the street children of Cape Town. From 1990 until mid-1992, David worked in Cape Town as a project coordinator of a children's home and as a street children project coordinator of a leading children's early education nonprofit. During this time, David distilled the basis for his new approach to working with street children, and launched STREETS Community Development Association in mid-1992.