Several years ago, I worked as an external program evaluator for a NGO that provided residential treatment for substance-abusing pregnant adolescents and adults in Charlotte. Some clients were homeless; most were merely poor women and girls. Taped to the wall in the main office was a yellowing rectangle of paper offering the staff a parable intended, I suppose, to encourage them through yet another difficult day:
Walking along a beach carpeted with thousands of starfish washed ashore by the tides, a man encountered a young boy who was tossing one after another back into the sea. “Why are you wasting your time throwing a few fish back into the ocean?” asked the man. “Can’t you see there are so many, that what you do makes no difference?” The boy replied softly, “It makes a difference for this one,” and he threw another starfish back into the water. I recalled that maudlin tale from time to time as I completed this book because it seemed so apt; while relatively few children benefit from them, the “jewel box” programs discussed in this volume may make a difference for those who pass through their doors. But I also recalled the wisdom of Jean Anyon’s metaphor about the futility of urban school reform absent structural change.
I am left to reconcile these two contradictory truths: “jewel box” programs for homeless and street youth are both absolutely necessary and woefully insufficient. I conclude that we must undertake both short- and long-term strategies. We must immediately provide humane and necessary social and educational services to poor children. A number of the programs described here—Projeto Axé, Projeto Semear, A Child’s Place, Estado de Cambodia—offer useful, though imperfect, collaborative models of comprehensive services for homeless and street children. But none of the programs—or even the high-minded legislation enacted during the last decade—can stop children from turning to the streets either to work or to live when they perceive no good alternatives (Mickelson 1990; Ogbu 1998). Even the best programs seek to educate or change—to improve—the children or their families so they can better function in the same society that sent them to the streets.
At the end of the day, as R. W. Connell (1994) observes, educational problems are essentially political problems. Domestic policies reflect values and choices. The long-term solutions to the situations facing the homeless and street children described in this book lie in eradicating poverty, in fighting racial and gender oppression, and in developing democratic social movements that demand economic growth with equity. Educating the most marginalized of our children—those who are homeless or live and work on the streets—may just be one of the best ways to begin.
Connell, R. W. 1994. “Education and Poverty.” Harvard Education Review 64: 125-49.
Mickelson, Roslyn A. 1990. “The Attitude-Achievement Paradox among Black Adolescents.” Sociologyof Education 63(1): 44-61.
Ogbu, John U. 1998. “The Study of Community Forces: Some Theoretical and Methodological Issues.” Address to the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 11 Dec.