Shobhan SaxenaJANUARY 11, 2020 21:34

A homeless person in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

In the past seven years, the number of homeless families has increased about 16 times

Last Sunday, Carlos da Silva, a 39-year-old homeless man, was sleeping on a pad of flattened cardboard boxes at a footpath in the city’s eastern quarters, when a man tip-toed on him and doused the ground with a liquid before throwing a burning match-stick into it. As the flammable liquid exploded, the man ran away and Mr. Da Silva turned into a ball of fire. But Mr. Da Silva dragged himself across the street, screaming for help. When he was taken to a hospital, he had 70% burns. He was declared dead. The police found a gallon of fuel at the site of crime, but they have not found the perpetrator yet. Most homeless persons in the area vanished the next day.

As the number of homeless people increases on the streets of this megalopolis, so are violent attacks on them. They live in constant fear.

Living on the edge

In a damp corner of a tunnel that connects the city’s posh neighbourhoods with Avenida Paulista, the Manhattan-like area of glass-and-chrome towers, Janice, 28, lives with her two children and a dog. The area is littered with plastic bags, wet blankets and broken trolleys. The stench is unbearable. But Janice calls it home, which her family shares with 20 other persons and five dogs. “We are always on the edge, ready to run. Sometimes, the municipal workers come here and splash us with water. Sometimes, the police kick us out,” said Ms. Janice. “I have nowhere to go,” said the woman who worked as a cleaning staff in a bakery for seven years, before losing her job, savings and house in the past three years.

According to the National Survey on the Homeless Population released in May 2019 by the Ministry of Citizenship, Brazil today has more than 1,17,000 homeless people; and in the past seven years, the number of homeless families has increased about 16 times. As per the government survey, of all homeless people in the country, 82% are men between 25 and 44 years of age; 67% of them are either brown or black; and 64% of them had not completed primary education. With its economy grinding to a halt and extreme austerity measures being imposed on the population in the past three years, the homeless population has exploded across the country. “We have abandoned the most vulnerable people of our society by cutting massively on social welfare. Out of job and money, people are living on the streets. This is also creating social tensions as petty crimes go up,” says a federal Ministry of Health official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are staring at a major social problem.”

The people who are bearing the brunt of this problem are those who have no roof over their heads, little money to eat and who are constantly pushed around by the police and ordinary people who see them as potential criminals. As per the Ministry of Health records, there were 17,386 cases of violence between 2015 and 2017, in which the primary reason was the victim’s homeless condition. There has been a huge spike in attacks on homeless people in Rio de Janeiro, where their numbers have tripled in the last few years to 15,000, including thousands who went there from other States for work before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics and then lost their jobs. “Just three years ago, there were very few people living on the streets here. Now, even the touristy areas are full of them,” says Jose Moreira, a resident of Copacabana. “The middle-class residents want them kicked out. There is a lot of tension in the air.”

3,58,000 apartments needed

Rio, which is almost bankrupt, is facing a huge challenge but São Paulo is not doing any better. According to State government estimates, to end the housing deficit in the city, São Paulo needs to build 3,58,000 apartments or houses at the cost of $13 billion. Neither the city nor the State and federal government is talking about tackling the problem. To make the situation worse, an ambitious plan launched by the Workers Party government to provide low-cost housing to families making under $550 per month has suffered deep cuts, with the number of units dropping by 5,00,000 between 2013 and 2016.

In such dire conditions, the homeless in São Paulo — and other cities — have taken to occupying old and abandoned buildings, mostly in downtown areas. Many of these buildings are decrepit but they give a shelter and a sense of security to homeless families. “I can’t sleep at night as I am worried about my children,” says Janice, who is looking for a place in an “occupied” building. “At least, someone will not burn you alive while you are sleeping.”

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in São Paulo)

courtesy The Hindu