PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The street kids who play into the night near Haiti's National Palace run scared whenever the soldiers come chasing them.
Still, says 12-year-old Bob, the cool tile floor of a government office-building's gallery is as safe and comfortable a place as any for a homeless child on the capital's tough streets.
"They can't kill us right in front of the National Palace," says Bob, one of about 20 boys who curl up evenings across the road from the vacant home of Haitian presidents. "They would get fired."
Kids are big losers
More and more youngsters, most of them boys, have been forced out on their own in the past two years as Haiti's economic life is drained away.
The kids are the big losers when families buckle under the strain of a coup that sent bread-winners into hiding and halted most social services.
Each day, a worldwide fuel embargo makes it harder for all to earn enough to eat.
And what the children see on the streets -- where brute force rules -- is making them turn violent, too, according to social workers, teachers and homeless boys themselves.
The capital has become a frighteningly dangerous place for street children -- one that offers them no choice but to fight back.
"They don't see anything around them but violence," says Annelies Triest, who counsels homeless children in a center near downtown Port-au-Prince. "Most of the children have something, a razor maybe, in their pockets to defend themselves. Kids as young as 5 or 6 now all have weapons."
Three religious organizations and nonprofit groups have facilities that can help just a few hundred of the thousands of street kids in and around the city.
No one knows just how many homeless boys and girls live in the capital, but the United Nations Children's Fund predicted 4,000 this year. Two years ago, it estimated only 2,000, though the number already was rising fast.
Those who deal with the children everyday say their numbers and the level of violence have increased strikingly since the military ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a coup in September 1991.
Psychiatrists say the country has seen a jump in juvenile delinquency, both because of the tension of the political crisis and the example set by anti-democracy thugs who are getting rich quick.
Corrupt role models
It is tougher now to coax kids off the streets and into school because they see jobless young men who suddenly, one day, start wielding guns and fists full of cash.
These armed men, the latest recruits into bands of paramilitaries that help the army keep control, show the kids the path to effortless earnings through drugs, theft and extortion.
"The children see all the easy ways to make money, so why work?" a social worker says. "As long as the political situation doesn't change, things will get worse."
In the past two years, many kids have taken their first lesson in violence from the police.
"Especially at night, soldiers beat them, shoot at them and arrest them," the social worker says. "Sometimes, a child will just disappear. Before the coup, that never happened."
In a wealthy suburb in the mountains overlooking the city, the street vendors and scores of waifs who hustle for a living tell of regular police roundups to get rid of the struggling poor, even if just for the few days they will spend behind bars.
"They never used to arrest you before the coup unless you were in a big fight or something," says Ti Pierre, 15. "Ti" means "little" in Creole, though Ti Pierre is the tallest of four boys selling chewing gum outside a suburban supermarket.
"Now they will take you to jail for nothing," he says. "Sometimes they beat you; sometimes they don't."
Many of the children, once they have been attacked a few times, turn their frustration and rage on smaller kids, social workers say.
Bob, whose name is pronounced "Bubb" in Creole, found the streets a welcoming place the first time he ran away from his uncle's house, where he lived for a few months after his mother died in 1990.
That was when he learned to make money carrying buckets of water or other loads on his head. He and his pals would pool their pennies to buy rice and beans to cook in a coffee can over an open fire.
That first trip into the world was two years ago, and Bob made some fast friends who taught him how to survive. But before long, he was back at home, giving his uncle's place another shot. When he returned to the streets last summer, he found them changed.
"The first time I was on the streets they saw I was a new guy, and they protected me," says Bob. "Now if the big kids tell me to do something and I say no, they pull a razor blade on me."
Victims of older youths
On his head, a lump the size of a golf ball glistens with freshly applied ointment, a badge from a recent scuffle.
Thirteen-year-old twins Nixon and Jean-Philippe St. Elois say they routinely get roughed up and robbed by older youths.
Nixon says the attacks usually come when he and Jean-Philippe are asleep in their new home -- an abandoned house just outside a wealthy mountaintop suburb called Petionville.
"It happens whenever they find out we have made a dollar or two washing cars," says Nixon, who said he and his brother ended up on the streets after their mother died last year.
When another boy says the story's a lie and offers to point the way to the twins' family home, Nixon threatens to beat him up.