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Essay: Streetwise (1984 film)

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays Miscellaneous essays
  • Reading time: 3 minutes
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  • Published: January 22, 2019*
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  • Words: 805 (approx)
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  • Streetwise (1984 film)
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Streetwise follows the lives of nine homeless teenagers in Seattle, including Erin Blackwell’s, a fourteen-year-old prostitute known as “Tiny.” Throughout the documentary, the children share their different experiences about how they became runaways and castaways involving similar themes of violence, neglect, and abuse. All nine teens fight for survival, engaging in dangerous actives to make money to eat. Erin is first seen at a clinic, taking an STD test after she believes one of her “dates” may have infected her. The short clinic scene highlights the real dangers that young Erin faces every day.
Like the other children in the film, Erin has a strained relationship with her parents. She has never met her father and stays at the home of her alcoholic mother, Pat, a waitress who seems unfazed by her daughter’s prostitution, calling it a “phase.” Erin appears playful and high-spirited throughout the filming, but it is clear that she is stressed. Her poverty has taken a toll on her health; she was exposed to drugs at an early age and has engaged in unprotected sex. She also appears to be under mental distress because of her family structure. She reveals her dislike for her step-father who hits her mother and doesn’t work but depends on Pat’s money. While Erin seems independent from her mom, she still wishes for her attention and believes her step-dad is taking it away from her. Moreover, the roles she plays in being parent, child, and victim are distorted when Erin worries about the abuse her mother may be undergoing.

The consequences of Erin’s life on the street are common among other homeless and runaway youth. A study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures revealed that the leading effects of children in poverty is “an increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors, including engaging in unprotected sex, …greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, poor health, and an increased likelihood of exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter or dealing drugs to meet basic needs (“Homeless and Runaway Youth”). In “Young Child Poverty in the United States: Analyzing Trends in Poverty and the Role of Anti-Poverty Programs using the Supplemental Poverty Measure,” researchers found similar results. The study concluded that some of the most salient short-term effects of income poverty include “cognitive delays, lower educational attainment, and negative health effects” (Pac,1). Furthermore, these short-term effects can create a cyclical life of poverty and instability. The follow-up documentary Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, demonstrates this.

Nearly 30 years after the filming of Streetwise, Erin is still living in poverty but is now the mother of ten children, having become pregnant with her first child at 15. Several of her children had been in the foster care system but her five youngest children are in her care. Like Erin, the older children have complicated relationships with their parents. Her daughter, LaShawndrea, openly argues with her mother about her poor parenting. The five eldest children (Daylon, LaShawndra, Keanna, Mikka, and Rayshon) have no relationship with their biological fathers because they either have never met him, do not know who he is or has lost contact. In the film, Erin also continues to struggle with an addiction to methadone; she is shown taking medication and sleeping frequently. Erin’s vicious cycle of drug abuse is also passed on to Daylon, her eldest son, who was using heroin daily to “feel normal,” and her daughter Ranaja suffered an almost-fatal heroin overdose and was left with permanent brain damage.

The two films demonstrate how structural failing (e.g., lack of good education, health problems, neglected neighborhoods) and social, economic and political systems, build on each other to enable chronic poverty. Erin’s life experience is typical among those who live for an extended duration in absolute poverty. Research shows that chronically poor people tend to be economically active, but “poor quality and insecurity of work, and social discrimination impacts on their economic prospects and access to basic services” (“About Chronic Poverty-Chronic Poverty Poverty Research Centre”). In “The role of Childhood Neglect and Childhood Poverty in Predicting Mental Health, Academic Achievement and Crime in Adulthood,” researchers Nikulina, Widom, and Czaja found that children who grow up in a poor household/poor neighborhood are not only predisposed to more traumas than those who do not but also have fewer “resources to buffer the negative impact of traumatic experiences” (310). Current effort to reduce poverty often neglect the chronically poor. However, intervention services, especially early ones, can change a child’s developmental trajectory and improve outcomes for children, families, and their communities. Ending youth homelessness requires

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