Carlos Antonio Bezerra, a 26-year-old migrant to Rio de Janeiro from Brazil's Northeast, is encouraging new chemical and health research into drug addiction and is experimenting with practical new ways to deal with the growing and quite distinctive drug problems facing so many of Rio's street children.
The New Idea
In a country where philosophies for dealing with street children seem as abundant as the children themselves, Carlos is one of the only "street educators" to focus sharply on the problem of drug abuse among this population. He believes that no attempt to provide drug-dependent children with jobs, education, or a place to live can work without dealing with the drugs. Most social workers, feeling hard-pressed to be effective with drug-free children, shrink from this hardest-to-reach group.Street educators, including the more than 300 in Rio de Janeiro, and others dealing with street children need new approaches specific to this problem. Carlos is providing the pharmacological, psychological, and sociological map they need.
In each of these three dimensions, street children differ greatly from other segments of the population. While middle- and upper-class users pay heavily for alcohol and cocaine, street children abuse common substances such as glue, lighter fluid, cough medicine, and BIN (benzene, ether, and sugar water). Pamphlets about how to help cocaine addicts have little relevance in this quite different world. The needs these children have, be they practical (e.g., to hide hunger) or psychological, are also different. Carlos is at work defining these differences, tracing how they interact, and identifying particularly critical parts of the process requiring early attention.
He's also developing ways of reaching such children effectively, finding ways to engage even the hard-core users in self-discovery. For example, he uses a "sniffing game" to help them realize how sniffing glue destroys (among other things) their ability to smell. In this game, he fills a series of small brown paper bags with wet sand, orange peels, and a variety of other objects with distinctive odors--and then challenges the youngsters to guess what's in each bag based on its smell. Heavy glue sniffers predictably do poorly.
Eventually Carlos hopes to move some of his own interventions to a larger stage than the street, e.g., using a theatre for dance, exercise, and art. He hopes this will evolve into a special "school" for these children. Carlos also wants to create a physical center where street children with serious drug problems can come or be referred for treatment. This center would simultaneously serve as a focal point for street educators and others working with such children.
Nobody knows how many children spend most of their youth on the streets. One responsible agency estimates that in Sao Paulo and Rio alone there may be as many as 2.8 million children on the streets. Brazil's precipitous urbanization over the last two decades, prolonged economic crisis, poor primary education system, and recent cuts in social spending partly explain this high figure. Forced into the streets to make a living for their families or because they have no other alternatives, street children often turn to petty crime, violence, begging, prostitution, and drug use in the struggle to survive.In Rio de Janeiro and other cities, the street children's most popular high comes by smearing shoemaker's glue on the bottom of a plastic bag and inhaling, producing lightheadedness and occasional hallucinations that can last for several hours.
Glue sniffing has many consequences, none of them good. The practice hurts the children's health, causing losses far more serious than the sense of smell. Prolonged use damages the mind, physiologically as well as psychologically. It can lead to death, especially when it hides or aggravates other problems.
Drugs are also likely to affect these children's relationships with others, driving them into ghettos of fellow users and making them less likely to attract help and more likely to be drawn into the entry levels of the country's expanding drug gangs. In some cases glue-sniffing leads to more expensive, even more dangerous drugs. This only intensifies the whole miserable cycle.
Despite the fact that thousands of children are thus caught in the cycle of the street's special pharmacopeia, so far neither the major government nor private institutions have developed effective drug education or rehabilitation programs to address the problem. The government instead continues to focus on rounding up some of the more visible children and putting them under lock and key in institutions more like penitentiaries than schools or shelters.
Carlos plans to work with three groups as he develops this program: the street children from central Rio, street educators and others working with street kids from all over the country, and medical and other technical specialists. His direct work with the Rio street children, combined with the information provided by the specialists, will enable him to develop new tools for those working with such youngsters all over the country.Carlos's direct, hands-on work with the Rio street children will further develop and test varied approaches and tools. He'll expand his use of outside educators and former drug users to help the children understand how drug use is likely to affect them. He'll use gymnastics and capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) to help the children develop a sense of their physical potential-and further to illustrate how the drugs damage them. He'll organize discussion groups to probe how drugs affect relationships. He'll encourage those making real progress to go to school, and he hopes to help some learn career-creating skills in drama and music. In each of these areas he'll be experimenting with new sequences, new materials, and new incentives.
Carlos is also working to get research centers and health professionals to add their specialized skills to find solutions to the problem. So far he's succeeded in encouraging the Nucleus for the Study of Drug Use (NEPAD) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro to channel some of its resources into this special area. Recently, he helped coordinate a series of seminars where NEPAD researchers oriented street educators about the medical effects of inhalants on children and adolescents. Next, he hopes to work with NEPAD to develop rehabilitation programs for addicted children.
Carlos's biggest impact will come from reaching his third audience-those working with street children all over the country. He's preparing simple, easily used materials for them that will explain the nature and effects of the street's drugs, how to deal with them (e.g., how to distinguish their symptoms and what antidotes to apply in case of an overdose), and how to organize a street rehabilitation program complete with materials. Then he wants to supplement these basic materials with comics and videos that street workers could use as aids. Carlos plans to use the existing networks of such workers, including the National Street Kids Movement, to distribute such information and materials.
The son of a municipal musician in the small Northeast city of João Pessoa, Carlos stood out in school. He was strongly influenced by a teacher (now the state's Secretary for Culture) who was interested in the use of theatre for social ends. He helped Carlos establish a statewide organization to encourage social theatre. Supporting himself as a musician, Carlos and a group of friends took over and greatly expanded the scope of the area's musicians' union.Carlos began working with street children in 1984 when he wrote and produced a play on the conditions faced by the city's street children. Half the cast were street children.
In 1987, Carlos came to Rio de Janeiro to work in one of its largest favelas (squatter slums) with a well-known community organizer. When this project came to an end, he worked with several groups dealing with street children. Increasingly he's turned to his own ideas and to the children who are hardest to reach and have the toughest problems.