Chapter 4: The Humane Response

Never in the history of this country has the importance of sheltering children from the risks and demoralising atmosphere of street life…been less in need of argument.

(Government Report, England, 1915 )

On summer nights, the fire which normally lurks in the centre of the pile sometimes breaks through to the surface of the refuse. Like a restless volcano, the mountain of rubbish is then engulfed in billows of smoke, which drift sluggishly down the rows of makeshift huts. During the day, children work, eat, rest and play among the flies on its noisome slopes, six storeys high. Vultures circle lazily in the sky overhead, marking  the spot from a distance.

Sam pat, a boy of 12, used to make a living there. He scavenged bones, broken glass, and tins which were recycled for packing fermented fish, and used to turn in his pickings to a junkshop.

Sampat reached only the second grade of primary school before dropping out, with the approval of his father, a widower who wanted him to work – like 90% of the local children under 10. At the age of, Sampat was working 14 hours a day for one fifth of the adult wage. He ate leftovers, sold leftovers, lived in a house made of leftovers, was leftover.

In time, his father had difficulty finding work and became increasingly withdrawn. Sampat dreaded returning home, and envied the boys he saw on Sundays, who slept in the park and looked knowingly at his bruises.

Today, Sampat’s fortunes have taken a turn for the  better.  He tries to forget the past, but still remembers the day when , driven by the natural affinity vagrant children have for each other, he met up in the market with a friend who told him where help was available. He now lives in a large, simple house in a different part of town, one of eleven in the neighbourhood where youngsters like him can make a new start. He has a new family, with 17 brothers’.

His new parents’, Raman and Tara, were easily persuaded in middle life, once their own brood of four had flown the nest, that their experience was too precious to lie idle. They were attracted by the idea of raising another, extended family, and being part of a supportive organization. Raman works in a textile mill, which the whole family has visited. His wife, with so many to care for, always seems busy, but friends and neigh­bours often come and help. Sampat has gone back to school, and his father’ hopes he will go on  to  the Technical  Institute to train as a welder or even a mechanic.

When he climbs the palm tree in the garden to pick coconuts for Tara, he can still see the vultures circling imperturbably over the same spot on the horizon, across the city. Then he thanks his lucky stars that some people have got love left over.

(From an Indian fieldworker )

I have found my China in Stepney.With these words, spoken  in 1870, Dr Thomas Barnardo decided to abandon his plan for working in the Far East and to devote his energies instead to the street children of the East End of London, whom a chance meeting had led him to discover on his own doorstep. His Victorian zeal, which still inspires the projects for orphans which bear his name today, is characteristic of those who, at different times and places, have been confronted with the cause of street children and have come to see it as more urgent and compelling than any other. Their efforts point the way to alternative, more effective, more humane and notably cheaper policies for cities and communities to adopt than some of the negative stereotypes described in the previous chapter.


Reaching Out

Such fieldworkers take as their starting point the immediate needs of the child, food, shelter, protection, above all loving care, and, like Dr Barnardo, have founded projects to provide them. Other cases than his are recorded of awareness and decision coinciding on the spur of the moment, triggered by a single, seemingly trivial incident. His successors, while well aware of the deeper structural causes of the problem, see their task as dealing firstly with their effects, which are enough to keep them busy. They recognize that, however much dedication goes into them, projects can never do more than make the best of a bad job. They know that the best ‘project’ for a street child would be a real family, with a real Mum and a real Dad.  If that is not possible, for whatever reason, they try, in different ways, to provide the nearest possible  substitute.  However  attached they may be to their own creations, they recognize also that a third-rate family is nearly always better than a second-rate institution. Having no axe to grind, they would not keep a child from its natural family for a day longer than necessary.

Their calling, of binding up physical, mental and emotional wounds, is a noble one. It requires seeing the child not as what he has become through force of circumstances, but for his own intrinsic worth, even if he is dirty, aggressive, rude, ungrateful or ‘impossible’. Part of the tragedy of street children may indeed be that they are far less attractive, as objects of compassion, than many others. Self­ sacrifice for the sick and the starving seems to bring a more conspicuous reward.

To walk in the steps of Florence Nightingale is one thing, but to be prepared to meet hard-bitten drug-taking 16-year-olds on their own ground, and win their trust, is quite another. Those who try to do so must possess the inner strength to translate compassion into action.

They join ethics and economics. They think it no more than natural to tramp the streets at night, befriending ‘those who have nobody’. Indeed, it is precisely because the environment in which the problem occurs is harsh and painful that they do so. Their ideals and the demanding standards they impose are perhaps no more than the mirror-image of the deprivation suffered at the hands of others by those for whom they care. Fieldworkers of this stamp find their only reward in the cheerful wave of the youngster who has ‘graduated’ and the thought that ‘he was one of ours’.


The Pioneers

So the job is not easy. It requires great skill, understanding, and above all patience, and it comes as no surprise to see that the pioneers in the field have been strongly inspired by religious motives: ‘Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done these things unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done them unto me.’

In the work of several Roman Catholic Orders, identification of street children as a specific target group can be traced back to the 17th century, in particular in the work of St Vincent de Paul. The Salesian Congregation has also always been  closely  associated  with the cause, and is still one of the front-runners. The foundation of the Salvation Army ( 1878 ), with its street traditions, was similarly in response to the issue. Then as now, the most successful project-holders working with street children have nearly always been people of excep­tional vigour and vision. Committed to uplifting their less fortunate fellows, they are able to break through surly distrust and  inspire  a deep loyalty. Such fieldworkers are the antithesis, in every way, of the cautious bureaucrat.

Their attractive, high-profile figures may seem larger than life, but, vital as their inspiration can be, their very prominence carries a risk of dwarfing the roles of others. The task of caring for deprived youngsters should, however, by demythified, and not put seemingly beyond the strength of ordinary people. It is indeed the paradox of many aid projects that their leaders, seeing their work as an extension of their own personalities, must then go into reverse, and try to reduce their identification with it in order to ensure its future development. More than one organization has been too closely tied to a single strong personality, usually the founder, to survive its passing. The problem of delegating tasks to others tends to be limited by the extent of interaction with the local community: if the burden can be spread more widely, there is less scope for the man or woman who is sup­posedly ‘irreplaceable’. It is useful, in this context, to remember that, under the skin, street children are after all no different from any others. Difficult they may be, but also, in time, vital, responsive, and rewarding. Giving priority to helping those who start life with fewer assets than most must come to be seen as a natural, routine part of comm unity life. It is a task for professionals, certainly, but one in which the least heroic citizen also has a part to play.

‘Caring’ Projects

The particular commodity in which the private sector specializes in care. Governments do sometimes provide it, but cannot buy it. Although some cities proudly point out large, expensive homes or training centres, sometimes intended to perpetuate the name of the founder as much as to resolve a local problem, they are not always the most effective in human terms. Whereas local authorities can supply shelter, food and other material necessities relatively easily, the crux of the matter lies rather in establishing genuine human relationships with the youngsters and rebuilding bridges with society. Such a task is often far more difficult for the clock-watching official than for the disinterested fieldworker. Those with nowhere to go must nonetheless find ‘accommodation’ not only under a roof but first and foremost in the heart of a caring person.

Before looking at the different ways fieldworkers have tried to meet this need, it would be useful to see what order of magnitude the private sector world-wide represents. Unfortunately, estimates of numbers fall foul of the same difficulties of definition as in the case of its clientele. Who counts as a ‘street children field worker, and who does not? While a certain number of unambiguous, purpose-designed projects do exist, no exhaustive compilation has yet been made. In 1982-85 an Inter-NGO Programme established by the International Catholic Child Bureau (ICCB), based in Geneva, identified about 150, several of which also addressed the needs of other deprived sections of the population, through community development, education, or health care. The real total is almost certainly much higher. The acute need for preventive measures tends to widen the criterion to include projects designed for deprived youths from rural areas, unemployed or single mothers whose children might otherwise drift away, or the young unemployed generally. Some family life education projects which try to teach better parenting skills, increase responsibility, and so keep families together are another borderline area. Evidence suggests that many more small-scale, local projects run by community groups and intended specifically for street children are currently operating, undocumented and therefore beyond external support.

As for the numbers of children reached, one is again reduced to ‘guesstimates’, as projects range in size from about a dozen youngsters to almost 1,000. Other factors compound the difficulty. Must one equate enrolment in a part-time, non-residential project with the same in a highly structured boarding institution? In the latter case, how long can a child previously living in the street still be called a street child? A very rough estimate can be obtained from the 300 com­munity-based projects presently being coordinated in Brazil. These are reckoned to reach a total of 100,00 children, and do not include many other projects outside the scheme. In human and economic terms, this figure is far from negligible but even so it is no more than a drop in the national ocean. Fieldworkers are unfazed by this common observation. The ocean is made of drops: better ensure you are doing what little you can, using the means available as effectively as possible.

No two projects are exactly the same; each has worked out its own niche over a period of years and none claims to offer any definitive model. Their design is a function of resources, the characteristics of the local problem, national legislation, and perceived priorities. While not always taking easily to suggestions made by outsiders, those responsible see their projects rather as pilot schemes, offering the benefit of their experience for others to adapt to different environ­ments. The simpler they are, the more widely replicable.


Forms of Care

At its most basic level, in what one could call the ‘contact’ project, the work can consist of simply going out to meet the youngsters on their own turf, around the downtown cafes, or on a patch of waste ground. The passive provision of a convenient place for them to come to is not enough, and making friends is easier said than done. The street counsellor, sometimes an ex-street child himself, aims essentially to build up a relationship of trust. He avoids paternalism and instead offers respect. Experience has taught those he seeks out that adults never offer anything without expecting the same or more in return. Therefore, he  may  at first  meet with suspicion. To overcome it, the counsellor must recognize the youngsters’ own values, a process involving enough empathy to be able to see the world through their eyes.

As a concept and profession, socializing and educating in the street itself is still in its infancy. It has considerable potential, however , and offers a variety of techniques. Street work has proved effective for putting youngsters in touch with useful services and contacts, but less successful in providing the closer, loving relationships and sense of identity which many see as fundamental. Urgent cases of distress in the streets can be dealt with more thoroughly in a crisis centre. Skilled staff in a suitably located office, perhaps backed by short-term accommodation, can help those in difficulty sort out their problems, often by referral to more specialized agencies.

Longer-term residential care for those with no other source of support, i.e. homes offering a substitute family, have become less popular with funding agencies in recent years than projects connected with some form of community development. It seems probable, though, that they will always fulfill a certain requirement. For one current of opinion, all residential solutions are highly questionable by definition, in that they create a group dependent on the charity of others, which can only encourage those outside it to remain passive in the hope of also becoming its beneficiaries. Cases of parents deliberately abandoning their children in order to get them into a project are not unknown. Many such homes are nonetheless models of selfless devotion, providing care, education and vocational training, often with very limited means. It would indeed be a cruel gibe to say that they answer the need not so much of the child in the street as of the donor with an uneasy conscience.

Certain children’s villages, in particular, have been the object of this criticism. A permanent community of its own, partly self­ supporting, where children can recover their self-esteem out of harm’s way, put down roots, and live in dignity appears to combine several advantages. But their experience has not always been entirely positive. The special requirements of the children can be difficult to reconcile with the expectations of the adults who care for them. Some villages, notably, are based on a European pattern and, though much admired by the wives of visiting Heads of State, have been known to propose forms of childcare which clash with local tradition. That surrogate mothers should be expected not to marry, for instance, is unacceptable in parts of Africa. The standard of living offered in the children’s village can be too high for the young to maintain on their likely earnings once they have left it.

The present trend is rather towards the non-residential, ‘com­munity-based project’ which uses work itself, under protected con­ditions, as the agent of socialization. Intended for working street children who are not entirely estranged from their families, but in danger of becoming so, its characteristic feature lies, as the name implies, in its integration into the life of the surrounding community. It is much cheaper than residential care, and can cater for far greater numbers. Some schemes based on producing handicrafts, textiles, ceramics, or furniture are almost self-sufficient. This model, for which nearly all the creative thinking has come from the non-governmental side, goes a long way towards removing the stigma of ‘difference’ from street children, with its suggestion that, being abnormal, they can be ‘treated’ only by psychiatrists and their like. The formula is attrac­tive and is being actively propounded, in particular by UNICEF, as an alternative to State-run institutions.

As examples of different curative solutions, let us consider the experience of two projects, one communitybased, for working chil­dren; the other for those more alienated from society, who require intensive educational methods. Both have tried to meet a demand unmet by any other agency and which, at the time of their foundation, did not appear to interest the State.


Of the first kind, the ‘Republic ofYoung Tradesmen’ in Belem, Brazi l, near the estuary of the River Amazon, has several typical features. Its customers are about 500 car-washers, coffee-sellers, or newspaper-, shoeshine- and office-boys. They congregate at noon in two restaurants, which provide lunch at nominal prices. The youngsters are recruited by teams of volunteer counsellors who go  out  once  a week to find  them  in  their  various jobs around  the  town. Their  task is to give the children and the families moral and material support, identify their real needs, and gain a fuller  understanding  of  their values. This belief in the need to reestablish a dialogue between the street child and society is a central tenet of the Republic’s philosophy. The problem is considered to have been caused by  a  break in the chain of social relations, and every effort is made to understand  why and how it has occurred in each individual case.

Perhaps the most original aspect of the project is the recycling of discarded goods, which makes it increasingly self-sufficient. Once a year, households in the city are invited to put out their old refriger­ators, armchairs, bicycles and other jumble on their doorsteps. The operation requires careful planning, as 1,700 volunteers tour the streets in lorries, loading whatever they find. Items in saleable con­dition are immediately disposed of, with the earnings going towards the general funds of the Republic. Those requiring repair or refur­bishment are distributed to the project’s workshops, processed by the teams of young apprentices, and sold at prices accessible to deprived families.


‘Bosconia/La Florida’ 

For the young wage-earners  of  the  Republic, often with dependents at home, childhood is almost a luxury which they have had to leave behind. They are deprived, but not depraved. Those with whom the street has dealt more harshly and who are more  alienated from society require a different approach. The ‘Foundation for Youth Counselling’, in Bogota, commonly known as ‘Bosconia/La Florida’, breaks new ground in many ways. Completed in 1981, it is an impres­sive construct, spread over different locations, with  an  enrolment  of goo youngsters. In order to penetrate their galladas, it has evolved a sequence of situations which are acceptable to them, and which gradually wean them away from their milieu towards a more normal existence. There are several steps: non-, partly, and fullyresidential, which correspond roughly to the different stages of psychological development.

In the first stage, ‘Operation Friendship’, counsellors seek out the youngsters in their usual haunts. Breaking the ice with a warm drink or other treat, they offer only companionship and an understanding ear. Once contact has been made, the boys are invited to a courtyard giving onto a street, and open during the day, where they are welcome to play games, have a wash, and eat lunch. Those who show the most interest are then allowed to spend the night in a simple dormitory, 20 at a time. The objective during this stage is still to introduce the child to the project but without wrenching him away from his normal habitat. It tries to motivate him toward change, offering a haven of peace from the turmoil outside.

From this semi-residential regime, the youngster then passes to a more elaborate, full-time programme. It is spread over three different sites, as a street child who has spent his life constantly on the move cannot simply be placed in a home, however comfortable, and be expected to stay there. The objective is ‘personalisation’, the devel­opment of an independent personality. The boys have to ‘find them­ selves’, so group therapy is organised in quasigalladas of 15. Their counsellors push the educational message at every opportunity. The street will be struck by the great cleanliness of the new environment,   

‘symbolic of your new condition’. Scraps of paper discovered on the floor, for example, are an opportunity to stress the moral about New Men in a dirty world. In actual schooling, the objective is to educate the boys to basic literacy. They have to learn first of all to want to learn, to learn to be, and to be useful, rather than stuff themselves with information. The teacher prescribes few tasks: the youngster must largely discover what to do alone, as an adventure. This concept of work is a central tenet of the whole educational design: for the younger ones, recreation is work, whereas for the teenagers work, presented as an enthusiastic transformation of the human environ­ment, is recreation.

After passing through a month-long, somewhat tougher Leadership Training Course, the youngsters become citizens of the ‘La Florida Boys’ Town’, a complex of buildings in an attractive rural setting . The change in environment reinforces the intended change in behaviour. From ‘personalisation’, the emphasis moves to ‘socialisation’, to the social man living within a community. This stage of the project oper­ates a system of self-government: like several previous attempts of the same kind, ‘La Republica de los Muchachos’ has its own written Con­stitution, with an elected Mayor and Governing Council. The final stage takes the form of an industrial firm, ‘Industrias Bosconia’, pro­ducing a variety of metal components, including solar heating panels. There is much to learn from the project’s unorthodox philosophy.

While using a particular approach of its own, it is wary of ‘methods’ as such, and prefers to put its trust rather in individuals, in their infinite variety. It stresses human contacts, trying to give the street child what he has really been looking for all the time. Whereas the tendency is to consider the street child as in some way abnormal, the project, on the contrary, stresses his normality; it does not consider itself therapeutic. Whereas the traditional attitude is to reform the child, the project is careful always to speak of promoting’ or advan­cing’ him, which avoids any reference to a dubious past. Regarding terminology, it decries the negative influence of the names often given to institutions: a child coming out of somewhere referred to as a ‘Reeducation Centre’, ‘Observation  Unit’,  Reformatory’, Asylum’, or ‘Orphan’s Home’ is practically marked for life.

Unlike such places, the project points explicitly, first of  all, to human happiness as the main objective of life. All the activities in which the children are organized are planned and carried out in  as festive and joyous a mood as possible, as an end in itself, not a means. Secondly, the process of educational growth can only be very gradual. Public opinion may demand impossible results, but just as separation from the families has  been  by stages, so rehabilitation, an alternative to the more usual judicial process, can only take place in the same way. The time taken by each child in each stage of the process depends on his progress, not on legal provisions. To lead him  forward,  the project holds out a series of attainable objectives.  What  it  offers,  it does so progressively: it would be  a mistake to  want to  give  the child everything at once, or to overwhelm him with benefits without expecting anything in return. Thirdly, the project believes firmly in recycling the positive qualities and values already existing in street life, which a keen eye can detect. It recognizes these elements as so much buried treasure. They must be completed by the entire moral, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions of which the children have been deprived, which must be deliberately taught  and  inculcated.  Finally, the project offers a very strong artistic element, in particular through theatre and music, and keeps the youngsters in  permanent activity, in small groups, where each individual becomes important to others.

Outreach to street children and youngsters is not restricted to NGOs of one particular cultural tradition. In India, for example, the ‘Adharashram Community Development Centre’ in Nashik, north of Bombay, has a 30-year record of reaching out to victims of family breakdown and preventing further disruption by counselling and support among the local community. With time, the care and pro­tection of children have become an important component of a broad strategy of social intervention, in close cooperation with local auth­orities. The Ashram’s skill in mending broken lives has received con­siderable public recognition. The MANOF centre in Nahariya, Israel, also has several original features. In a residential programme, it offers seventy 15-17 year olds a year of intensive vocational training in professions of higher standing than is normally the case, such as photography and electronics. Most participants have been rejected from conventional placements, and are unacceptable to any other organization. Much use is made of the peer group as an educational unit. To critics who question its methods as expensive, the project points out that in the long run they are less so than the alternative variety of residential care offered by prisons.


Relations with the State

Even when they enjoy official support, many projects such as these nonetheless suffer from severe administrative difficulties, symptomatic of a widespread malaise within the private sector. Despite their achievements, their finances often remain precarious, even in the rare cases when the recognition they deserve is forthcoming. As donations from the public wilt under economic pressures and costs rise, many fieldworkers struggle with rampant inflation, especially in Latin America. They can afford only skeleton professional staff, rely increas­ingly on improvised solutions, and find it hard to maintain high standards, let alone expand to meet the increasing demand. Where subsidies are provided by governments, for example in maintenance grants on a per capita basis to cover the cost of food, in whole or in part, funds promised are somehow seldom available in time.

In terms of their legal status, also, many projects, anxious to preserve their independence, find that grants may have strings attached. In some parts of Africa, the very existence of non-governmental projects may be called into question. Almost everywhere in the Third World, with certain notable exceptions, cooperation between the public and private sectors over street children is at a low level and several projects feel the need for more clearly defined respective roles. NGOs coexist uneasily with the governmental proclivity to inspect, coordinate and control: the State is often wary of private organizations able to mobil­ize large numbers of people at grass root level. Many would agree that they are still too scattered and isolated to bring their full potential to bear. There are reasons for this other than financial fragility and governmental coolness. The individual leaders of projects do not always find it easy to work together with others or in a single organization. They are often individualists, happier going their own way.

They tend furthermore to have little time for paperwork which their headquarters abroad require. At the end of a long, sweaty, exhausting day with the children, questionnaires and other wellmeaning forms lose their attraction, even when funds are at stake.

It would be wrong to think that positive experiences are exclusively limited to the private sector. Perhaps the most promising sign of governmental reform comes from Brazil, where UNICEF, starting at the invitation of the Ministry of Social Welfare in 1981, has pointed the way to new objectives and progressively scaled up local concern into something approaching a national campaign. As a result, Brazil is so far the only country in the world to have a coherent national policy on street children, with a level of public awareness and debate unmatched elsewhere. The process provides a text-book example of how a UN agency can change mentalities, provoke initiatives and withdraw once the ball is rolling. In this case, the resources required were not drawn from general funds but provided separately, by donor governments interested in the specific issue, such as Canada and the Federal Republic of Germany.

UNICEF’s advocacy in Brazil involved pioneering fieldwork. Merely getting an overview  of the situation  of street children  proved an immense task. The search for effectiveness and originality involved visiting 75 towns and cities and narrowing the variety of projects discovered down to 5 ‘preventive’ models. In order to have a mar­ketable product which could be  widely shared, UNICEF analysed and documented their everyday activity.  Under the watchwords ‘We all have a problem’ and ‘We can  all participate’, meetings attended by government officials, NGOs, religious leaders, educators and employers were convened , in some 300 urban and peri-urban com­munities. In almost every case, the process took root and led to a concrete project. There were very few failures; fatalism was replaced by confidence and specific skills. To avoid creating only a flash in the pan dependent on a charismatic figure or the government of the day, ad hoc Commissions were established locally under the legal umbrella of the National Child Welfare Agency (FUNABEM).

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the programme was the willingness of FUNABEM and the government to recognize that it was in their own best interests for NGOs to take on certain tasks. The authorities put them under contract to start and run projects, but without using their subsidy to enforce compliance with any particular ideological criteria, making them only socially and morally account­ able. Too close an identification with the State could seriously compro­mise the chances of any project in the eyes of its clientele.

The wealth of pioneering experience accumulated by projects such as those described represents a resource on which, given goodwill, other governments could build. Cooperation with the private sector could make governmental institutions more humane. Closer coop­eration and networking between projects, in their present crisis, could be mutually strengthening. As a first step, if they want the State to listen to them and accept them as a convincing partner, NGOs must present a common front. Only then could their expertise  be scaled  up as a component of national strategies.

There are encouraging signs that in some of the countries where the problem is most acute, this may now be coming about. In Uruguay and Costa Rica, and more recently in Colombia, not to mention the special case ofBrazil, street children projects have grouped themselves together into national associations. Internationally, the issue is at last being mentioned, if no more. For the first time, the fieldworker need no longer feel he is alone. Much will depend on individuals but expectations have been raised and must not now be disappointed.

Even with full official cooperation – not always easy to ensure – NGO projects, with their slender resources, will always have difficulty in fulfilling the stupendous task they face. New, more open attitudes must be encouraged within society to overcome the dereliction of responsibility typical of many communities. New strategies, as creative as those of individual projects, but involving new partners, must break the vicious circle of cause and effect before the real damage is done. The next chapter examines some of the ways in which this could be brought about.