Colombian Shares Perspective on Poverty

IT was not economics, international relations, or even the great American success story that Colombian social worker Carlos Lara came to study in the United States. It was the underclass.

``Why would you come to the United States for this? To learn what?'' Mr. Lara says he asked himself when he left Bogota two years ago for the land of ``dollars and hamburgers.''

After all, Colombians don't have to go far to study poverty, which is blatant in the Andean chill of Bogota as well as in the steamy green countryside.

And Lara himself is uniquely qualified to understand human hardship: He is a survivor of the streets. By the time he was eight, he had become one of the many thousands of Latin America's gamines, those children of poverty who grow up homeless, surviving by tugging at heartstrings and thieving.

While comparing Colombian and US social ills is an apples-and-oranges contrast, Lara, now returning to Colombia, says he has gained perspective and some new ideas that he can use in his job as an administrator at the Youth Services Foundation, the program that rescued him from the Bogota streets nine years ago when he was 16.

In a conversation with the Monitor, he discussed how the Youth Services Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by a Salesian priest, has succeeded in attracting children from the streets into an alternative education program. And he talked about his two-year sabbatical here with Los Angeles gangs, the homeless in Seattle, native American alcoholics in Alaska, and abandoned and runaway youths involved in prostitution and drugs in Hollywood.

Lara and another colleague, who also lived on the streets as a child, were sponsored on the two-year study by the Inter-American Foundation, a federally funded development agency that helps fund the Youth Services Foundation.

Specifically studying organization, management, and fund-raising techniques, Lara also focused on programs concerned with AIDS and drug addiction - two rapidly growing problems that were not yet prevalent in Bogota when Lara was on the streets in the early 1980s.

Given Lara's background, the perspective he has on US social ills is tellingly different from that of US policymakers. He recalls the clash of his first impressions of the United States and his television-fed image of the US as paradise. Upon seeing ``40 or 50 people sleeping in the street in the winter snow near the White House,'' he says, ``my first question was `What happened?' If they have money for other things why don't they have money for these people?''

Rarely directly critical of the US social service system that hosted him in various cities, Lara notes the excesses of paperwork, bureaucracy, credentialism, and money used in programs that don't always solve problems. He speaks about this with a confidence born of the success he has experienced and sees daily in his work with the Youth Services Foundation.

Widely praised in the development field, the program is a mixture of vocational training and a boarding program designed to let the children ease themselves off the streets into a more traditional lifestyle. It serves 800 youth with only a handful of adult supervisors, a growing number of workers who are graduates of the program, and a shoestring budget.

The program operates on the philosophy that the wit and spunk a child uses to survive in the streets reflect a basic intelligence that can be redirected. The children are permitted complete freedom to come and go from the program - although leaving means that they must start advancement in the program over again.

Child-welfare programs in the United States, he observes, often seem self-defeating and consumed with research and statistics.

``Professionals are at a desk waiting for patients and the kids are outside,'' he says. ``We [social workers in Colombia] go to see the kids in the street, but [public officials in the US] don't go out in the street.''

Lara himself was rescued by the Youth Services Foundation because the priest who founded the program, Javier de Nicolo, was out walking the streets in search of youths. He found Lara and his friends living in a tree over the downtown bus station and invited them to Bosconia, the program's center where street kids are sheltered and, over time, brought in to an alternative education program.

``In Colombia we cannot have 100 professionals for 20 boys. ... That's too expensive. Before [the children] get a psychiatrist and 35 sessions of therapy, they need a friend, they need work, and they need new values to change their lives,'' he says of another difference between American and Colombian systems. ``My program believes the solution is not clinical but environmental.''

Programs for homeless youths in the US often are more concerned with keeping them off the street than actually understanding and changing what troubles them, he says.

Why do children turn to the streets? Social forces drive them there, he says, stressing that he does not believe it is the fault of either parent or child.

Sifting through his two years of observations, Lara says that food banks for the homeless - giving away surplus food - is an idea he'd like to use in Colombia.

But, he says, ``We can't copy the idea exactly. It's difficult because if you give one piece of bread away today, it's just two people. Tomorrow it'll be 100, and the next day the line won't end.''

Besides the plan to carry out some of the ideas he has gathered here, Lara expects to begin to study law, to be an advocate of Bogota's estimated 2,500 to 5,000 gamines.

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