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Helping the street children of South Africa:
profile of Ashoka fellow David Fortune

A profile of Ashoka fellow, David Fortune, fostering social change in Cape Town, as founder of STREETS Community Development Association there. 

David Fortune, a priest, child-care worker, and part-time actor, is reintegrating children and youth living on the streets of South Africa into their families and communities. Moving beyond reform schools and traditional relief efforts that provide only immediate food and shelter, Fortune has designed social work techniques that bring street children, families and communities together in understanding and action.

Born in 1962, David lost his mother at the age of nine and his father at age 14. The loss of his parents, particularly because 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 the banking industry as a clerk. 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, and worked part-time as a professional actor. 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 as a street-children project co-ordinator in Cape Town. During this time, he worked out the basis for his new approach to working with street children, and launched STREETS Community Development Association in mid-1992.


The phenomenon of children and youth living on the streets is worldwide; however, it is a relatively recent problem for South Africa. Until the 1980s apartheid laws placed artificial constraints on urban migration, strictly controlling the influx of black South Africans to the ëwhite' areas of the country. With the relaxation and eventual abandonment of "influx control" in the 1980s, South Africa has seen a rapid rural migration to the urban areas. Rapid urbanization, combined with economic and other social ills, has resulted in an 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 17, of whom 2,000 live in Cape Town. They are predominantly male (98 per cent) and all black. Most of their activities are unlawful to some degree, ranging from petty offences to more serious matters like 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, which 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 (the children are guilty of an offence if they leave), and prisons. Most children see the institutions as lonely and frightening places. In a prison-like environment, children have their heads shaved and are often put together with older, more hardened children. They learn only to fear adults and respond to commands.

Long-term solutions

David Fortune believes that the problem of street children cannot be addressed in isolation from the family and the larger community. His organization, STREET, is the first in South Africa systematically to consider long-term solutions to the problems of children living on the streets.

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, 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 will link 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. As a result, children are more prepared to go home and deal with the problems that may exist there.

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 non-governmental 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, older siblings).

Finally, at the community level, STREETS organizes productions of an original play that are brought to various communities to create awareness and mobilize communities 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 volunteers 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 19 communities around the Western Cape province. More than 200 children have been successfully reunited with their families, a 66 per cent success rate. STREETS has been acknowledged as a model program by the Department of Social Services in the Western Cape. 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 focusing on communicating the STREETS approach to government social service providers and other agencies working with street children.

"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."

Since its inception in 1980, the non-profit group Ashoka: Innovators for the Public has found and supported over 900 outstanding individuals throughout the world who have ideas for far-reaching social change. This is a new installment in a series of profiles of Ashoka fellows.

From the July/August 1998 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005