More than two thirds (68%) of Britons have no idea about the extent of young people living rough on the UK's streets, associating the problem with less developed countries, research has shown.
A survey commissioned by the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) to mark Wednesday's International Day for Street Children revealed a huge lack of awareness about the issue.
An estimated 100,000 children run away in the UK every year but the poll found 80% of the British public significantly underestimate the problem.
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The survey showed that more than one in five (21%) would feel suspicious of potential criminal activity at the sight of young people sleeping rough while fewer than 10% would feel compelled to help them. Only 13% of people realised the issue of street children is prevalent in Western Europe, with most associating it with countries in Africa and Asia (61%).
The International Day for Street Children was launched last year by CSC and seeks to challenge the perception that the issue is confined to the developing world.
CSC and its sponsor Aviva are asking governments to sign a pledge to stand up for the rights of street children at www.streetchildrenday.org/take-action.
Sally Shire, chief executive of CSC, said: "Across the globe there are large numbers of children surviving on the streets. Whether they are a runaway from Derby or a street child in Delhi the factors that drive children to the streets are similar. Being a street child is not a crime; we want governments and society to recognise this."
Andrew Moss, group chief executive of Aviva, said: "Through our Street to School programmes we're helping provide vital support to street children in immediate need.
"I'm proud that Aviva has helped over 400,000 children since its launch. But it's also important that we play our part in creating long-term, sustainable change for these children.
"Policy change is never a quick win and, given the complexity of these children's needs, it's not a quick fix either. That's why supporting the International Day for Street Children and sponsoring the newly published UN research is important; providing clarity and focus on the problems facing street children and those who work with them."