YMCA - Bogotá
The Bogotá YMCA has been working with street kids for the last twenty years, first with street outreach and now with an innovative, integrated program to prevent youth homelessness. Their success and creativity largely depend on the emphasis the program places on research.
In the 1980s, when most street kid programs were just giving out food or providing shelters, YMCA research showed that almost all street kids had families, but that they had left home because of conflicts with their parents. Research also showed that several neighborhoods expelled the majority of children who came to live on the street. With this knowledge, the YMCA decided to focus on families and expelling neighborhoods, thus preventing kids from ever reaching the street.
Preventing youth homelessness has a broad definition for the YMCA, and involves a component on the street. Before kids become truly homeless, they pass through an initiation phase, where they spend some nights on the street but have not yet become part of street culture. If the program can contact the kids at this moment, they can return to their families quite easily -- the kids say that the street is their last option, but when the YMCA presents them with other options, they are often glad to take advantage of them.
The YMCA runs two programs for kids initiated in street life, both in expelling neighborhoods: Ciudad Bolívar and Casuca. The centers offer such cool activities that the kids are willing to live with their families again, just to be able to go there and play. Games, art, and sports work to develop the children in body, mind, and spirit -- while family educators work with the childs parents.
Family educators are careful not to present themselves as experts, nor as a solution to the families problems. Instead, they catalyze the familys effort to find its own solutions. Family sessions include all family members, from mom and dad to uncles, grandparents -- everyone who touches the life of the child. The YMCA also brings together groups of families so that they can help each other, feel as if they are contributing to the life of the community, and to weave a mutual support network.
Educators offer eight sessions with the family. Each session lasts two hours in the family home; this location means that street kids must tell educators where their parents live. Children often lie about their homes, but there is a pattern to their lies: another street with the same house number, the mothers last name instead of the fathers, etc. It takes a lot of work, but the educators always find the house. When there, they introduce themselves with the phrase, Were here because your child is living in the streets, and we think that you can help him to get off them. Though many parents slam the door in their faces, persistence always opens the door again -- educators have learned good selling skills from door to door salesmen.
- The first session with the families tries to connect with them, and to evaluate the situation -- not an objective evaluation, but what the family thinks of itself. What are the familys problems? Its dreams? Its hopes for other children? Here, respect and listening are the most important virtues for the educators.
- In the second session, everyone talks about the familys history, often with the help of a family tree. Almost all of these families have a history with homelessness -- as a family, the parents when they were children, or perhaps a brother. In this context, kids learn that the street is a solution. The session is always difficult, and ends in catharsis.
- The third session is about emotions. Is there love in the family? The answer is almost always yes. But does the family show love? Here, the answer is "no". The families that send kids onto the street arent just abusive -- and sometimes there is no abuse at all. Instead, they fail to hug their kids, and they never say I love you. In this session, parents learn how to show their love -- and what are the consequences if they dont.
- With the fourth session, the educators begin to talk about the future. What hopes do the parents have for their kids? For the family? What does the child want from his parents? Here, the family begins to dream, and to plan a new life.
- The fifth session searches for a way to construct this new life. What resources does the family have? What is the family network? How can grandma help? What about an uncle, or the cousins who live on the other side of town? The family learns to take advantage of the resources in the nuclear and extended family -- and how to use the strengths they have always had.
- The sixth session formally plans a life project and outlines a path to get there.
- The seventh session evaluates the process. If the family still has questions or problems, everyone goes back over them. Educators also listen to the familys criticisms -- what could they have done better? This criticism refines the process and shows the respect that educators have for the families.
- The eighth session is not a single session, but a process: follow up. With the end of six months, the classes come to an end.
Sessions with the family work out of a systemic-ecological philosophy: strengths, social dynamics, resource use, and balances. The logic is about feedback and change -- for the family and for the educators. While the educators are working with the family, the child continues to live with his parents and attend the YMCA day center.
Work in the communities is equally important. The YMCA sponsors youth groups in different fields: music, dance, poetry, rap... Three professional community animators teach and motivate these groups, but the groups depend on the kids. Other youth work as tutors for little kids, or build community parks, cook in a soup kitchen... whatever strikes them as important.
As I have mentioned, research is the foundation for the YMCA model. Listening to children and youth is equally fundamental, and has helped the YMCA adapt to changes in street life. For instance, kids have been telling staff that the street economy has changed in the last several years --it is no longer a good idea to be filthy on the street, because people arent giving spare change any more, and vigilantes are beating up street kids. Today, it makes more sense to look good and to rob people. And, since robbery is better business than begging, many street kids can now pay for a night in a flophouse, and they no longer sleep in the street. With this new knowledge, the YMCA can begin to plan a model to serve these kids.
The YMCA has also researched school dropouts, because they have seen a close relation between leaving school and leaving home. Kids give four reasons for leaving school:
- Abuse by teachers, peers, and principals
- Oppressive discipline, everyday repression
- Boring classes (I never learn from the teacher, but I always learn from the street.)
- (a much less common reason) The need to make money
The YMCA is now working with public schools in expelling neighborhoods to solve these problems.
Research into the families of street kids has shown several common problems. Poverty is a necessary but not sufficient cause of youth homelessness. Poverty plus violence sends kids onto the street. Being a war refugee is also a strong causative factor, to a certain degree because of the violence in these kids lives, but also because they are used to playing in the fields of the countryside. In the city, they play on the street and learn street life.
Research has also shown that street myths make it tough for kids to return home, so the YMCA has developed curricula to deconstruct these beliefs. In these myths, stepfathers and stepmothers have come to rob Moms (Dads) love for me! Family educators teach how important it is for mothers and fathers to show even more love after a second marriage.
Another powerful myth associates the street with freedom. Street educators talk philosophically with kids: What is freedom? Other myths say that kids on the street are powerful -- after all, they have guns and money -- so educators begin to ask what power really means.
The YMCA serves 100 kids in the center at Ciudad Bolívar and another 80 in the center at Cazuca. Another 60 live in an emergency shelter. 381 kids participate in community groups, and some 100 community leaders (youth and adults) help them organize their activities. At any given moment, the YMCA is working with about 200 families. Significantly, the YMCA serves this large population with a small staff (less than 40 employees) and a minimal budget.
The YMCA elaborated its model in an excellent book, Prevención del Abandono del Hogar. It is available on the internet, and you can download it here, in English. We highly recommend it.
La Asociación Cristiana de Jóvenes
Cra 16A #28B-33
Telèfono: Direcciòn General 2885902. Subdirecciòn 2885801, conmutador 2325 448
sitio web: www.ymcabta.com
understanding social services for street kids in Latin America