Helping Brazil street kids survive their way

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.

``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.

Jailton and Antonio are in one of the programs involved in the project. The Minors Community Center, run by the Rev. Laurindo Batista, a Roman Catholic priest, provided shoeshine boxes and brushes. The 150 boys in the program - girls are on the streets, too, but not in the same numbers - make a down payment that is comfortable for them, and then pay off the cost of the boxes over an agreed-on period. Fr. Batista says the rate of initial default is high, but that most eventually pay off their debt. The boys also get daily hot lunches for a small price. The program does not offer a place to sleep, so the children spend their nights wherever they can.

The two teen-agers, interviewed during a drizzle that sidelined them for the afternoon, talk about their life on the streets, their backgrounds, and outlooks in ways that fit the typical profile of street children. Antonio has found a bed at a facility of Funabem (the Foundation for the Welfare of Minors), but Jailton sleeps on the steps of the Grand Municipal Theater, unless he earns enough on a given day to afford a $2-a-night hotel he likes.

A very good day of shoeshining, the boys say, brings in about 150 cruzados, or $5. More typically, a day's work brings only $2. It's less than he'd earn by stealing this reporter's watch, says Jailton, who estimates the watch would bring $15 on the street. But, the boy declares, ``I don't steal anymore and I never will again.''

Jailton is a joker who likes to sing his own songs. Bare feet tapping and polish-stained hands gesturing, he broke off an improvised tune about King Kong to do the interview. He is a lively talker on all topics, except when it comes to discussing his family. Jailton left home after his mother died and arguments with his father made life on the street seem simpler. He refuses to discuss his former home and says of the future that he hopes never to have a wife or children. ``I'd just like a house to live in, and food to eat, and a job as a salesman.''

Antonio, on the other hand, hopes for a future with a family. ``But I don't want my kids to be involved in a life like this ... I want them to have school,'' says Antonio, who can barely write his name. His father once tended cattle in the interior of Sao Paulo State, where Antonio was born. Why he brought his family to the city, where it disintegrated under poverty, the boy doesn't know.

``Once our family tried to go back [to the country]. We stayed with my uncle for three months, but there were too many people in his house and not enough food,'' recalls Antonio. The family structure is something he laments losing. ``The most fun thing I've ever done is staying together with my family. We talked a lot and we'd make good food.''

Both boys say they fear violence on the street, and each knows several other children killed by peers or, they say, police. Jailton had one friend who died after a long period of glue-sniffing. They say drugs are commonly used among their friends. Both admit having smoked marijuana.

As the sun came out - good shoeshining weather - the boys excused themselves. But Jailton added a final point he wanted the interviewer to understand: ``I live on the street, but I'm not poor, because I have a lunch every day and sometimes I go to a hotel.''

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