What does poverty look like?

Much has changed since the DHP started going to Honduras two decades ago. When we first went the poverty was in your face all the time.  The description below from Casa Alianza (Covenant House) was accurate–indeed on an early trip one Drew student challenged a glue seller about his purposes and begged him to stop (to no avail, although the crowd that gathered clearly agreed with her).

“In the square in San Pedro Sula, right across from the McDonalds, is a man who sells nothing but glue. He sets up a card table and fills it with the little tubes of solvent-based glue. That glue is for street children to buy and inhale. It is made in and exported from the United States or made by US companies in Central America. Unlike glues of a similar kind (and brand) sold in the US, this glue does not contain nausea-inducing mustard seed. Men like this one can be seen selling glue to Honduran street children in every major Honduran city.”

Street children purchased the glue because inhaling it reduced their hunger and numbed them to the emotional and physical pain they endured every day–both physical and sexual abuse in addition to the sense of hopelessness and abandonment.

In the early 1990s, the square described above contained an open market and the street children gathered there to beg for money and food scraps that the vendors dropped or donated at the end of the day. In the later 1990s we started reading press reports of police murders of street children in major cities, but especially San Pedro Sula. The market was banished to closer to the train tracks and the children vanished. Taxi drivers told us that if the street kids were not killed or imprisoned they were simply driven out of the city and dropped off; left to fend for themselves miles from home and shelter. Large American chain stores filled the mall off the square, and now there is a fountain and flowers and on summer evenings old and young gather to dance to local bands.

On the face of it the problem no longer exists. But the fact that street children and general signs of poverty are not in your face does not mean they no longer exist. You just have to look. Go to the parts of the city were tourists do not go; check under the underpasses; visit the city dump; or go to rural areas and you will see them. And what you see will still break your heart.

After Hurricane Mitch the DHP volunteered in a number of village rebuilding projects. New houses replaced the temporary shacks built by the Hondurans displaced by the hurricane. The children helped us carry rocks and cider blocks up precariously steep and muddy hills–you can see pictures of them doing so. We knew that their distended bellies were not a sign of good health, but we wondered why so many of them had noticeably lighter skin and hair than their parents. Being polite North Americans we didn’t ask. Then a student learned about Kwashiorkor in a class at Drew. There are a number of nutritional deficiencies that cause changes in hair and skin pigmentation; coupled with the other symptoms we observed, it is clear these children were starving in front of our very eyes.  The World Health Organization lists hunger as the most important world health issue and malnutrition as contributing to 50% of all child mortality. Malnutrition, in the form of iodine deficiency is also the the most common cause of mental impairment, reducing the world’s IQ by an estimated billion points!

The point here? You don’t have to see the children begging to understand that there is work to be done. And you don’t always see when a problem is right in front of you. A second point: what you learn in classes that seem unrelated to volunteer trips like this one can help you understand what you see and experience, making you a more effective citizen of the world, able to assess problems and bring researched knowledge to bear on the process of finding a solution.

In the last half-decade, DHP has mostly worked in children’s homes that rescue children from a life of poverty and prepare them to be self-supporting members of the community once they leave the home–through education, professional training, and so much more. These homes are run by Hondurans, although funded by donations from people in the US, the UK, and Canada. Some of these homes work with families who apply for children to be given a space. Others include children who are placed there by the government or referred from other organizations or churches when they are orphaned. We can’t save everyone, but every life that can be improved is a step in the right direction.