Hope for Autonomy

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.-John 14:2

We met Ana Paula in the streets. She was unusually happy. It is very rare to see her smile which is unfortunate because it really brings out her beauty. I have written about Igor in the past two posts but I hardly said anything about Ana Paula. Well, this is partly due to the fact that she is an enigma to us. She is the mother of Igor’s child, Isabel. They have been together for four years and their child is about two years old. Like Igor, she had lived in the streets all her life, but her parents are still alive. However, she hardly speaks about them. Even those who have suffered abuse by their biological parents mention them once in a while, but not Ana Paula. Besides this, Ana Paula has always been reserved and hardly spoke to any of our team. She was not exactly unfriendly but she tends to withdraw from the world. We heard from a team of mental health workers that she suffers from occasional hallucinations. Sometimes in her rare friendly mood, she would tell us incredible tales of her life but we knew that they were mostly fabricated. However, we were never sure if she knew that they were. She has a difficulty dealing with reality and Igor was her link to the real world. Unfortunately it is a very fragile connection. Therefore, when we saw Ana Paul all happy and beaming with delight, we really not sure what to expect. We didn’t have to wait long to find out; she blurted out uncontrollably that she has a new home.

The government program came through with its promises (the previous post sheds more light on this). They found a temporary place for those who were squatting in the abandoned square. The homeless squatters were sent to two different locations; one was close to the center and the other was about forty minutes away. Igor and Ana Paula deliberately requested the one furthest away from the center. This is a significant development for them spiritually.

Igor and Ana Paula really want a change in their lives. They are tired and weary of street life and they do not want to depend on criminal activity to sustain their livelihood. They believe that the further they are away from the center, the better the chances of them leaving this lifestyle behind them. This outward attitude reveals something that is happening within them. They have reached the point where the Prodigal Son in the famous parable of Jesus was when he realized that feeding the pigs was not the road to abundant living.* However, unlike the young man in the parable, they are not sure of the road back to the Father’s house. It is an internal and spiritual road which each person has to discover by themselves. We cannot take them there. It wouldn’t become real for them if we do, but we support and encourage them in this walk home. Nevertheless, it is journey that they have to discover for themselves. This is their trajectory to autonomy and self-discovery.

Coincidentally, the name of the temporary shelter where they are living is called “Project Autonomy for Life”. Ana Paula wanted us to see it right away and so, we went with her. On the way, she couldn’t stop telling us about this place. I won’t go into details here to bore anyone reading this post but certain keywords she used to describe the place struck me. They were “organized”, “clean”, “discipline”, ”privacy”, “rules” and “curfew”. All the things are completely absent in the streets and she was genuinely excited about all these things. It sounded like they were something she always wanted.

The shelter is not exactly a shelter. People have permanent rooms allocated to them. You cannot come and go as you please. In fact, no one can visit the place without authorization. There is a time period for the residents to stay there. The place itself is a former hotel that was bought and reformed by the government. There are about a hundred people housed here. They are given six months to find a job and rent a place of their own. There are social workers to assist each person in their job search and help them plan towards personal autonomy. Ana Paula wanted us to see her room but outsiders were not allowed to go up. We explained to the person-in-charge who we were and he made an exception. Igor was resting in his room and he was happy to see us. Like proud new owners of a house, they gave us a short tour of their room. It took us less than a few seconds. It looks like any small hotel room, but for them, it was a step towards something better and wonderful. Igor and Ana Paul had everything organized. There was nothing out of place. It would be hard to believe that these two people had spent most of their lives in the streets.

I asked Igor what he thought about this new place. He said that it was nice but he wants his own place soon. He is happy with this first step but he wants stability for more than just six months. He does not want to live by receiving handouts. This is understandable. However, Igor does not understand that when we start with nothing, we need some help. For those of us who have families and a good support system, our help comes from our families. More than anything, Igor needs someone to help him navigate the road to autonomy. Igor and Ana Paula have nothing and they do not know where to start. Then Igor corrected me though. He said that he has a daughter now and he always wanted a family and now he has motivation to move forward. I reminded him that God also has sent us here to be his support and walk with him in this journey. Together we are going to discover the transformative power of the gospel. The gospel is not just going to transform his life but our lives are slowly changing as well. Igor has enriched our lives and we hope and believe we have enriched his as well. This is the power of the gospel. It has taken complete strangers from different contexts and brought them together to see and experience His love in action in the lives of two orphans.


Igor Has an Address

Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.-Mark 9:37

It is not easy to keep a schedule when you are living in the streets. Igor has never had a reason to wake up at a certain time and keep appointments. He has never lived with anyone who has had a steady daily schedule. Nothing is fixed or constant in his life. He has slept in the streets most of his life but never in the same place. This is quite typical of the homeless children. They make their bed wherever it is possible. One day, it might be under a highway bridge and then the police come and scatter them away from this place. Then they migrate to another abandoned or hidden location until the police find them. This cycle goes on for years. This constant movement and change make it difficult to cultivate any long-lasting relationship. Life in the street is unstable and chaotic. Keeping a schedule does not make sense. It only makes sense for those who have grown up in the stable environment. Igor never could afford such a luxury.

As you can see, it was not an easy task to have regular English lessons with Igor. He could not keep track of the time or days. Despite this, we still managed to squeeze in at least two English lessons before Igor completely disappeared from the streets. At first we thought that he had forgotten our lesson time. Days turned into weeks and there was still no sign of Igor. We started to get worried. We thought that maybe he was arrested but Igor seemed to have given up his criminal activities. Therefore an arrest would be unlikely. No one could give us a coherent answer. Then, by chance, we ran into him one evening. He looked very healthy and happy. He told us that he had left the streets. In reality, he was squatting with a group of people in an abandoned square. He had built a tiny shack of scrap wood. For him, this was the first step towards a better life. He invited us to visit him there and we did.

We had heard of this place before. It was a fenced up public square that the local government had turned into a drop-in center where the homeless could take a shower and wash their clothes. The project did not last long and was shut down due to lack of manpower. The square was abandoned with all its facilities and the homeless population eventually invaded this space. It was now home for several hundred people including families with children. Igor’s shack was the size of a small bathroom. There was just enough space to have a bed and perhaps a small suitcase to keep their clothes. For us it wasn’t much, but for Igor, it was the first time he had a place to call his own.

We knew that the government was going to restart the program and consequently they were going to repossess the square. Igor was aware of this as well but he wasn’t discouraged. He told us that the government was going to provide temporary housing for him and Ana Paula for six months and then they have to find a way to rent a place. Igor needed a series of personal documents in order to apply for jobs and he did not know where to start. Brazilian bureaucracy is not easy to navigate and especially for someone like Igor, it is very intimidating. Frankly speaking, we are intimidated by it as well but we decided to offer our help nevertheless. Igor accepted our offer.

The first step was to get Igor the Brazilian equivalent of a social security number. In order to this, we needed to go to the local post office to register Igor’s name and address. His name was not a problem but Igor did not have a permanent address. Usually he used the address of his aunt but he could not remember the postal code. They could not find the name of the street and we came to an impasse. I could see that Igor was getting a little discouraged. I asked the clerk if they could use any address and she said that it was not a problem as long as he had an address to receive correspondence. I stood there for a moment thinking whether I should risk giving my address. I knew that Igor has been involved in criminal activities. I also know that he wants to have a better life now. He needed a chance. I asked the clerk if I could give my address and she nodded a “Yes” and Igor looked surprised but he tried to hide it. I gave my address and we got Igor’s social security card. Igor was silent as we left the place. However before we said goodbye, he said that he will never forget what I did there. He said that it took courage and risk for me to trust him and then he gave a big hug and held on for a few seconds longer than usual. He said once again that he will never forget what I just did. Something good had happened and I was relieved that I took the risk.


English Lessons with Igor

I must admit that sometimes my posts seem to be a little erratic. I share about our interactions with some particular child or teenager and then the following weeks there is hardly any news about them.

I do not mean to be erratic. However, this is the nature of the work. Some days we have meaningful interactions with a particular child and then he or she just disappears, not literally of course. The center covers a wide geographic area. The children and teens do not usually stay at one place. They do sleep at the same place every night but they like to wander during the day. The young ones think that life is an adventure. They go from place to place seeking food and frequently causing some mischief along the way; nothing really sinister. They just want to see how much they can get away with in the streets. The older teens don’t like to be in open spaces during the day. They are susceptible to police’s scrutiny. They feel safer if they move around to avoid any suspicion. We have to wander around as well in order to find them and when we do, they are usually high from sniffing paint thinner or another form of drugs. We have to wait for the right moment to speak with them. Usually we get this chance perhaps with at least one child or teen almost everyday but not always with the same child or teen. This is why there is not always a follow-up story in my posts. However, this time I am going to do something different. Something new is happening. We are excited but at the same time we are cautious. We don’t want our excitement to rush things or create unrealistic expectations. We are excited about a young man named Igor. I want to share his story but it is impossible to do so in one post. It is a story of a relationship that has been slowly developing over the past year. It is not just Igor’s story but it is also our story.

I mentioned Igor before. Actually I have mentioned several Igors. It was a popular name in São Paulo twenty years ago. Consequently, there are several different Igors about the same age in the streets. This particular one came to the streets when he was 8 years old. It was the tragic death of his mother that drove to the streets. She was killed over a trivial argument and the life of her son was changed forever. Igor’s father had died in prison a few years before and he was all alone in this world. His aunt took him in out of obligation and Igor sensed this strongly. As an eight year old child, he made a decision which no child of this age should ever make in an ideal world. However, he did not live in an ideal world and he ended up in the streets. Crime and drugs are part of the street life so is incarceration and Igor experienced all of these. By the time he was eighteen, he had been incarcerated fifteen times. He told us that he never cared for anything or anybody. He would leave the detention center and go back to the streets to rob. He did not believe that life had anything to offer him. Then he fell in love with another homeless teen, Ana Paula. She is four years older than him with a similar background. The two orphans found solace in each other. It did not take long before Ana Paula was pregnant and Igor was incarcerated for the last time as a minor during her pregnancy. Igor told us that it was the first time he seriously thought about changing his life. This time when he left the detention center, he was determined not to return.

When we first met Igor, we did not know much about him. Only thing we knew was that he was interested in languages. He had memorized some French phrases just from hearing some Africans speaking to each other. He told us that he always wanted to speak in English and French. We asked him if he was interested in learning English. He said that he was willing to learn anything if he was given the chance. This was the beginning of a series of English lessons with Igor.