- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

LES CAYES, Haiti On the edge of town, dozens of boys congregate below a statue of Jesus. It's their home as they scratch out lives on the town's littered streets, which are noisy with trucks and motorcycles.

Forced from their homes by poverty and broken families, the children load and sweep buses for meager tips. They don't attend school, their clothes are ragged, and fellow citizens largely regard them as a nuisance.

"I don't know my age," said a barefoot Jean-Claude George, who has the body of a 10-year-old but the gaze of a man who has known years of suffering. "I've been on the street a long time."

Like others among the children who sleep on buses or near the white statue, Jean-Claude fled an abusive home in the countryside for this town on Haiti's southern coast, 100 miles from Port-au-Prince, the capital.

He earns small change on the buses to pay for food and shoes, but the sandals often disappear in the company he keeps.

"The other kids keep an eye on me all night," he said. "Once I go to sleep, they steal them."

Street children struggle in cities around the globe, from Sao Paolo to Bombay. But in this Caribbean nation, the Western Hemisphere's poorest, the problem of homelessness among children is especially severe.

Some experts say the situation has worsened in recent years amid Haiti's political turmoil. Thousands of children wander the cities, looking for odd jobs, begging or stealing to eat.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, has tried to make children's issues a cornerstone of his presidency, but government efforts have failed to bring the children off the streets.

In 1986, before he was president, Mr. Aristide founded the Family is Life orphanage. His political involvement eventually made it a target for opponents.

In 1991, the same year he was ousted in a coup, five children died in a suspicious fire at the facility. In 1992, some children were wounded when Aristide opponents stormed the building and began shooting.

The orphanage eventually closed in 1999 amid protests by orphans, who said promises of jobs weren't kept.

Dominique Esperant, the former regional head of the Social Affairs Ministry in Les Cayes, hopes to put street children back on the political agenda.

"Everyone seems to think the best way to deal with this is to kick these kids out of town," Mr. Esperant said. "I believe they can become good citizens like anyone else, if someone is there to help them out."

Frustrated by a lack of government funds, Mr. Esperant is trying to raise money independently to start a center to house street children.

He meets with the children below the statue of Jesus, drawing a crowd as he writes their names on a list. At last count, the list had 57 names.

"There is no work back home," said Lesene Souverain, 17, who says he left home when he was 9 because his parents couldn't pay for school. "At least on the streets, there are people who can help me."

In the nearby hills, deforested land is turning into desert. Curls of smoke rise as farmers use remaining trees to make charcoal for cooking. Mr. Esperant says most of Les Cayes' street children come from this wasteland.

"They don't have any arable land to plant anymore," he said. "So they came to the city to look for life, to look for a way to survive."

Child labor is common, even for those who stay at home. Boys in Les Cayes sell crackers and muffins from trays on their heads. In Port-au-Prince, some young girls work as prostitutes to augment family earnings.

Sometimes, poor parents give away children to be servants for better-off families. It's widely accepted in Haiti to keep a child servant, or "restavek" Creole French for "stays with."

The children often are mistreated, and human rights groups criticize the practice as child slavery. Abuse drives many restaveks to the streets.

In Les Cayes, many people express little pity for the children, calling them "grapiyay," or hustlers.

Jean-Claude's young face, like those of others, bears scars. He said he won't return to the home where his father beat him.

"I'd rather stay with the guys," he said. "They're practically my family."

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