Projeto Miguilim is perhaps the most successful government program for street kids in Latin America. After a decade of extensive work on the streets of Belo Horizonte, an extensive census found only 520 street kids in the city (of whom Miguilim helped 369 off the street). Only ten years before, a similar census had found 40,000 kids on the street, so this number is simply amazing.
Miguilims name comes from a novel by Guimarães Rosa, where Miguilim provides a child with a new viewpoint to see the world. Projeto Miguilim understands this as its mission: to rescue other perspectives on the world, to open new alternatives. Toward this end, Miguilim mobilizes a broad array of services, from family counselling to street outreach to art and circus programs, shelters, and transitional living programs.
Work begins on the street. Miguilims thirty street educators are broken into 9 teams, each of which works a specific at-risk area of the center of the city. One team works at night, the rest during the day. The street education teams use games, sports, and other fun things to develop trust and ties with the children. Like Axé in Salvador or Travessia in São Paulo, Miguilim wants to inspire o desejo do menino: childrens desire. Once desire and trust have been developed, educators begin to propose alternatives: would you like to reconcile with your family? Join a circus? Learn art? Live in a shelter?
Miguilim uses childrens desire as a motivator to inspire the kids to do what will help them. Many of these activities occur in a large center near the railway station (a long time hang-out for street kids). These include:
- other music (singing, guitar)
- escola de samba
- art in recycled products
The centers walls are covered with childrens art, and staff see the place as space belonging to the kids. As with street kids anywhere, drugs are an issue. Though the center does not prohibit kids to enter high, it does not permit drugs on premises. The idea is to show kids that they can live without glue for several hours. With this lesson, they may be able to go even longer.
Twelve workers help the children reintegrate into their families. Their techniques are both amazing and difficult to teach: family workers insist that the most important skill for their work is humility. They do not presume to know the solutions to the families problems, but only come to catalyze the families ability to think through their own problems. They know that there is no absolute truth about the family, and that no social worker knows more than the family. Instead, they listen. Family workers never visit a childs home without h/er permission and presence, and they try to remain as quiet as possible, encouraging the child and h/er parents to be actors in their own reconciliation. Family workers avoid judgment and shame, instead trying to establish real connections with the kids families. This program has been tremendously successful.
Nonetheless, not all children can be reintegrated into their families or even their extended families. For these children, Miguilim co-ordinates 13 shelters and three centros de passagem, (transition centers") run by other NGOs under contract from the city of Belo Horizonte (see Casa Dom Bosco, Projeto Recreação, etc). When children decide to leave the street, Miguilim street staff take them to one of the Centros de Passagem, where they may stay for 90 days as they learn the skills necessary to live off the street (hygiene, waking up in the morning, eating at a table, social skills). Children are free to leave the Centros as they wish; Miguilim has found restrictions on liberty to be counterproductive. The shelters mostly serve older children who may be able to live on their own soon, but one works with children 0-6 (generally the children of street children).
Miguilims administrative structure is a model for other programs as well. Their elaborate and detailed documentation both confirms their success and indicates where they can do better work. Constant training, group discussion, and reading groups improve the quality of care (while I was there, I talked with one tremendously well-prepared discussion group, while another met to talk about the post-structuralist psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto.). Training is very important because Miguilim makes a special effort to hire a diverse staff: philosophers, historians, economists, theologians... all to provide a wealth of perspectives for the kids.
Miguilim does not provide food to its clients on the street (in shelters, it does). First, the program has come to learn that street children do not die of hunger: food is available for the begging. More importantly, children have learned how to manipulate agencies that provide food, taking the food but no more help than that. With this knowledge, Miguilim decided to focus on play and desire. At one point, Miguilim ran a sort of drop-in center where kids could take showers and get food and clothing; they found the experience counterproductive. Kids only used the center as a resource to stay on the street, so Miguilim closed the place.
Though Miguilim operates with a great deal of independence, almost like an NGO, its connection with the city government has been valuable. Each morning, judicial authorities provide a list of all children arrested over the last 24 hours; if any are Miguilims clients, the program can intervene on their behalf. The programs work inside the city has also led to one of the most interesting innovations I have run across: the Belo Horizonte police department now has a special unit dedicated only to street kid issues (started in 1993 to reduce police brutality). These cops not only learn how to help street kids, they also serve as an alternative model for their comrades in other units. Surprisingly, not only do street kids recognize the cops special uniforms, they appear to trust them. This police unit works and trains closely with Miguilim staff.
With the help of Miguilim, NGOs in Belo Horizonte have largely escaped the assistencialismo and charity that encouraged children to stay on the street or to embrace the role of victim. However, many individuals and store owners continue to give food and money to kids on the street, allowing a professionalization of the hardest-core of street kids.
Rua Mucuri, 24
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais
031 3277 4376
Contacts: Marcio or Marcos Aníbal, firstname.lastname@example.org