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Helping Brazil street kids survive their way

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1986



Sao Paulo, Brazil

JAILTON DUARTE, a 17-year-old shoeshine boy, has lived away from his 12 brothers and sisters in a suburban slum for more than a year. He may go home for Christmas, so he bought himself a new shirt and pants, ``because I didn't want to spend Christmas dirty.'' Fellow shoeshiner Antonio Risso has holiday plans, too.

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``For Christmas, I'm going to see if I can stay with my father,'' he says. His father lives under a Sao Paulo bridge. But with some Christmas cake and wine it'll be a traditional holiday, Antonio says.

Hardened hustlers with flashes of wide-eyed innocence, children like Jailton and Antonio are a common sight in Brazil. An estimated 10 million Brazilian ``street children'' - abandoned or driven by poverty to the streets to feed themselves - are shining shoes, selling chewing gum, ripping watches and gold chains off the more fortunate, washing and guarding parked cars for pennies, and sleeping in theaters or parks.

Like the street urchins of Paris, London, and New York at the turn of the century, they are the human residue of rapid industrialization and urbanization. And, say social workers, their numbers are not decreasing. Of Brazil's 50 million children under age 15, there are 30 million whose basic nutritional, educational, and health needs are not being met; and 10 million of those are growing up on the street, says Bill Myers, a UNICEF consultant.

Mr. Myers spent four years working with the Brazilian Social Welfare Ministry designing the nation's Street Children Project. The project has helped form networks among previously isolated groups working with the children. With money from UNICEF and the Canadian government, it also conducted studies that have develeped an ethic for handling the street children problem, which has become a phenomenon throughout industrializing third-world nations.

``The approach to the kids is through their work and not merely giving them food and meals. The idea is to help them survive their way, to help them make a success of what they're doing, instead of telling the kid that he's being bad. Because these kids really are doing the responsible thing,'' going out and working, he says.

``This is not considered a cure for economic ills, but it's a way to save individuals,'' he explains, adding that while nations work on the macroeconomic causes of poverty, something has to be done for the generation already caught in the poverty cycle. The project's findings are being widely adopted throughout the world among those who work with street children, Myers says.

When the project began in 1981, the problem was being treated by the news media and the average Brazilian as a crime problem, says Reinaldo Bulgarelli, a social worker. Today, the image of street children has improved, he says. But, while the average Brazilian may be more aware of the plight of such children, they are still wary of them when they meet on the streets.