SAO PAULO, Brazil — For years, Paulo Collen was one of the tens of thousands of dirty-faced, barefoot and undernourished children who prowl the streets, stealing and begging to stay alive.
But at 18, he has beaten the odds.
Collen today not only has a job at a civil engineering firm, he has written a book that has called nationwide attention to the millions of abandoned children in Brazil.
In "Mais Que a Realidade" (More Than Reality), Collen, who was abandoned by his prostitute mother when he was 3 months old, describes his childhood inside Sao Paulo's juvenile detention center and on the city's streets.
Learning the Wrong Things
Created to re-educate abandoned children so that one day they could become useful citizens, the detention center "is in reality a school where the only thing you learn is how to become a beggar or a thief or a murderer because that was how we were treated," Collen writes in his book.
Showing several razor-blade scars on his left arm, Collen said that "it was so bad at the detention center that to escape the brutality of it all, I tried to kill myself at least five times.
An Honest Living
"No one really cared about us. No one took the trouble to teach and prepare us to earn an honest living."
Alda Marco Antonio, head of the newly created state Child Welfare Department, agreed with Collen's assessment of the detention center.
"It is a repressive place where the kids lose all their self-esteem," she said.
She said the department was opening several shelters and boarding houses where children "will be treated like human beings, given vocational training and placed in jobs."
She said no one knows for sure how many street children exist in this industrial and commercial city of 10 million people. She estimates the number at no more than 50,000, while other estimates go as high as 300,000.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund, 7 million children are abandoned in Brazil, a nation of 141 million people. Not all are street children. Some are in orphanages or in detention centers like the one described by Collen.
Collen said he escaped at least 15 times from the detention center but was always caught and sent back, often to be severely beaten. He was 13 when he fled for the last time and became one of Sao Paulo's street children.
He joined a group of about 15 children and for the next few years lived on the streets.
In his book, he describes how he slept on park benches or under store awnings and theater marquees. He washed his clothes and took baths in public fountains and begged for his food or stole it.
He also stole watches, necklaces and bracelets from passers-by and sold them "to shady characters and sometimes even to the cops."
"They would pay us almost nothing and if we complained they would beat us," he said.
Wanted a Chance
"But I always felt that if only I had a decent chance I could make something of myself. I always knew that I was made to be more than a street kid."
His chance to redeem himself came in 1985 when the Sao Paulo State Department of Education opened a special school as part of an experimental program similar to the one now being developed by the Child Welfare Department.
He spent almost two years at the school where, he said, he met "people who changed my life. People who cared about me, made me feel wanted and gave me a reason to live."
Reinaldo Bulgarelli, a social worker with the independent National Movement of Street Children, said: "Given the proper opportunities, street children will adapt to society. The big problem is to get society to adapt to these children."
Bulgarelli befriended Collen while the boy was living on the streets.
"He is an exceptional case of a street kid who managed to overcome society's barriers and make something of himself," he said. "He succeeded because he is extremely intelligent, persistent and knows how to assert himself--traits I think will prevent him from becoming another Pixote."
Star of 'Pixote'
Bulgarelli was referring to Fernando Ramos da Silva, a slum youth from the outskirts of Sao Paulo who was chosen at the age of 12 to star in "Pixote," the 1980 Brazilian movie about street children.
But, Silva failed in later attempts at acting and returned to the slums where he had several run-ins with the police.
Earlier this year, at the age of 19, Silva was killed by the police after a foiled robbery attempt.
"Pixote was one of those precious stones but he did not have the luck to find someone to polish him," Collen said.