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Abstract

Today it is estimated that there are over 150 million youth living and/or working on the streets worldwide, with the majority of them in cities of the Global South. We know very little about their lives. Urban sociological literature tends to overlook these youth by considering them part of the larger urban poor. Research that does examine these youth tends to take a social problems approach that focuses at the individual or peer level and extracts them from the larger context they call home. This dissertation draws on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork to fill this gap by placing these youth within the larger ecology of the city and mapping their social world. I find that when youth in street situations enter the street, they seek to create their fantasías or fantasies where they find not only food, shelter, and protection but where they also find the love, sense of belonging, and autonomy that they didn’t find in their homes. They build relationships with their peers, the adult urban poor, middle-class residents, and numerous institutions in the city to make these fantasies come to life. They are drawn to specific relationships with mother figures and fictive kin to create family bonds that offer them protection but also fulfill their various emotional needs. They strategically perform their youthfulness and misery in ways that allow them to elicit sympathy from middle class residents and help them to maintain a positive sense of self by resisting the stigma of the street. They strategically use the multiple civil society resources available to them in ways that maximize their benefits while avoiding spaces of care where they lose their sense of autonomy, a complicated balance as they are willing to cede autonomy for the emotional support that employees of these organizations offer. This dissertation emphasizes the need to understand the community of youth in street situations as part of the urban landscape in order to understand social dynamics of cities of the Global South, where the majority of urbanization will occur in the next 30 years, and to understand how to best support these youth.

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