Children who live on the streets 17 February 2000

 First posted LONDON - 17 February 2000 1,000 words

MORE than 100 million children live in the sewers, backstreets and gutters of the the world's modern cities. Abandoned by parents too poor to feed themselves, orphaned by war, or fleeing abusive families, they beg, steal and sell themselves for a meal. Living on the edge of survival, children as young as five are often swept in an undertow of alcoholism, drug addiction, beatings, illegal detentions, torture, rape and murder.

In Latin America, near luxury hotels and dream holiday beaches, armed police routinely go out at night beating up or shooting children. One organisation which is dedicated to rescue these youngsters from the streets and bring some love into their lives is Casa Alianza. Recently, director Bruce Harris came to London with three former street children, on their way to Stockholm to collect the Olof Palme Award for the charity's work.

Casa Alianza runs projects in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Their first step is to go out and find the children in parks, around rubbish dumps and bus terminals. Outreach teams provide street children with emergency medical care, counselling and friendship, encouraging them to come into crisis centres where youngsters are given a clean bed, good meals, education or vocational training if they want it and the chance to regain some self-respect and hope. The next step is the transition homes where children are helped back into the mainstream school system or jobs. From here, some may eventually be helped to return to their families. Others move into group homes where an average of 14 boys or girls stay together in a positive family-type setting until they are 18.

The charity also runs two drug rehabilitation centres in Guatemala and Honduras. In Guatemala City, they have a mums and babies project for the growing number of young girls with babies. In both countries, they now provide legal aid services. Casa Alianza opened the first legal aid centre for street children in Central America after a 13-year-old child was brutally murdered by four policemen. It took a two-year court battle to convict the men. In spite of being threatened and an armed attack on the shelter, they continue with their campaign and have now prosecuted more than 100 policemen for murder or torture.

Antonio, Juana and Luis looked quite stunned as they faced the TV cameras and flashguns in the House of Commons last week as guests of MP for South Dorset Ian Bruce. Clinging on to Bruce Harris, who had travelled with them to England, they soon relaxed and began talking about their lives.

Juana, aged 13, from Mexico City, spoke of a brutal family background. After her father died, her older brother started to abuse her and she was thrown out of her home by her mentally ill mother. She joined a group of street kids and soon became addicted to glue, stealing in order to pay for the habit. On one occasion she was arrested by police who said she could either go to prison or be beaten. She chose a beating. Juana was found on the streets by volunteers from Casa Alianza, but Bruce says she managed to get off the streets through her own very hard efforts. She says she would like a job with computers when she grows up.

Antonio, a round-faced, cheerful-looking 11-year-old from Honduras, has seen a great deal in his short life. After running away from home at the age of eight, he managed to keep alive by begging but soon became addicted to shoe glue which took away his hunger, cold and loneliness. He entered the crisis centre for the first time in 1992 but did not last long as he couldn't kick his addiction to glue. After several more attempts though, he managed to break the habit and, within two years, he had done so well he was named president of Casa Alianza¹s newly-formed boy scout troop. Under his leadership, they have served as guard of honour to the President of Honduras. In January last year, Antonio was reunited with his family and he has now successfully completed his fourth year of primary school.

Luis from Guatemala City ran away from home when he was seven. Although his body is tiny, he has a tired little face that looks much older than his eleven years.

In a story that sounds like a modern Oliver Twist, to begin with Luis survived by guarding cars and selling sweets. At night he curled up in a rubbish skip behind a department store. But, as he got more hungry, he took to glue-sniffing and was soon addicted. By nine, he had got into petty thieving and had several run-ins with the police. Luis went to a crisis centre when he was down on his luck. But he found it very hard settling and told me he had run away seven times. The lure of street life is still attractive but he¹s on his last chance now and says he is going to really make an effort. On the long trip to England on his first-ever flight, he sat in the cockpit for most of the journey and knows what he want to be when he grows up - a pilot.

"No child should have to go through what these children have experienced," Bruce said. "If the street children of the world lived in the same place, they would have a large country. As it is, there is no one to speak for them."

Casa Alianza is campaigning for the UN to install someone to represent the world's street children. The organisation is also calling on the multinationals that produce narcotic solvent-based glues to stop selling them in Latin America. "These glues are no longer on sale in any other part of the world," Bruce explained.

Bruce's work on behalf of Guatemalan street children was the focus of a BBC TV documentary 'They Shoot Street Children, Don¹t They?' which has been shown in more than 50 countries. He also spearheaded another BBC TV investigation into the trafficking of human organs 'The Body Part Business'.

If you would like to help the work of Casa Alianza, the group has asked readers to call the embassies of countries where street children are still being being shot by police. The Honduran Embassy is on: 0171-486 4880. The Guatemalans are on: 0171-351 3042.

"Sometimes people tell me they feel they are too small to do anything," Bruce said. "I always say 'If you think that, you have never been in bed with a mosquito'."

If you would like more information about the charity's work, write to them at: Casa Alianza UK, The Coach House, Grafton Underwood, Kettering, Northants NN14 3AA.

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