Teachers, white-collar workers, single mothers: The Brazilian middle class is collapsing amid the crisis brought by the coronavirus, and many are landing on the streets of São Paulo. But there may be a solution in sight.
By Nicola Abé in São Paulo, Brazil
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The day that Tiago Ferreira de Almeira’s normal life came to an end, he packed some clothes and his most important documents into a suitcase. He walked out the door, leaving behind his bed, his television and the rest of his belongings. It was the day when Ferreira lost his apartment in Bela Vista, a middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo.
Ferreira didn’t know where to go. Ultimately, though, he says, he walked to the square in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of the city, a place where a lot of homeless people sleep. He spread out a blanket and lay down.
It rained that first night, and Ferreira’s clothes were drenched when he woke up. And his suitcase with his extra clothes and ID was gone. It was still dark, and he found a dry spot to stay out of the rain, hungry and afraid. He met a woman the next morning, who bought him a burger at McDonalds. “That’s when I started crying,” he says. “Her name was Maria.”
Ferreira, 29, had worked until May at a chocolate factory called Kopenhagen. But when the company was forced to lay off several of its employees because of the coronavirus, he no longer had enough money for his next rent payment.
Since June, Ferreira has been living on the street or in homeless shelters, a different place every night. He has joined up with a couple of new friends on the streets, one of whom lost his job as a teacher. In Brazil, far from all former employees who have lost their jobs qualify for government unemployment assistance.
Even before the corona crisis, the economy in South America’s largest country was struggling. The middle class was shrinking, and the number of homeless people was continually ticking upward.
But ever since the beginning of the pandemic and the half-hearted lockdown early on, the country has slid into a deep economic crisis. The number of unemployed has skyrocketed, as has the number of people living on the streets of the country’s largest cities.
Volunteers estimate that the number of homeless people in São Paulo, the largest and economically most powerful city in South America, has jumped by 60 to 70 percent. Official numbers are not yet available, but anecdotal evidence can be seen at soup kitchens for the homeless, where the number of people waiting for a meal has more than tripled in some cases. One NGO employee calls it a “horror scenario.” Another says: “We are now constantly being asked basic questions, with people wanting to know what corners are safe for sleeping or whether they can show up again tomorrow for a meal.”
On a recent Monday morning in January, Ferreira was sitting at a plastic table in a large room in the Mooca district, where Monsignor Júlio Lancellotti, with help from the municipality, is passing out breakfast. It is Ferreira’s first visit to the facility. He is drinking an orange juice, with a dry bread roll and a package of crackers sitting on the table in front of him.
“I never thought I would end up in this situation,” he says, “and suddenly …” He snaps his fingers and his eyes fill with tears. The worst, he says, is the hunger and the constant feeling of being dirty. “It is the most terrible experience I have ever had in my life, the biggest humiliation.”
Luciana Batista, 40, is sitting a couple of meters away with her six-month-old son Gregory. Her daughter Rebecca, who is five, is proudly holding up a glittering T-shirt, which she got from a clothing bank. Batista has been homeless for a little over a month and is currently sleeping in a hostel “with 100 women and 30 children in one room,” she says.
They aren’t allowed to stay there during the day. Batista, who lost her job cleaning a shop, is a single mother and she comes here every day.
“We are seeing more and more families with young children who have become homeless and are living in shacks on the side of the road,” says Luiz Kohara Kukuzi, director of the human rights organization Centro Gaspar Garcia. “That is a major shift.”
Many jobs in the informal economy have disappeared, but millions of others in the formal sector have also lost their employment, with waiters, shop assistants and factory workers having been laid off. The result has been a collapsing lower-middle class. The government forecasts that unemployment could climb over 18 percent this year. And the worst is still to come. “I am expecting a humanitarian catastrophe in the coming months,” says Kohara.
A primary reason for such fears is that the government in Brasília ceased paying out an emergency allowance for the poor struck by the crisis as of January. Fully 67 million Brazilians – almost a third of the population – had been relying on the 600 real (around 90 euros) each month. “It helped people in the favelas pay for rent or food,” says Kohara. And they have no savings, he adds. Their situations are now so tenuous that they could end up on the streets from one day to the next.
Even before the crisis, tens of thousands of people in São Paulo occupied every nook and cranny in the city, including public squares, highway tunnels, traffic islands, bridges and building entrances, or they slept in tents that they decorated with Christmas lights for the holidays, or in tarp-shanties on sidewalks.
Some of them arranged their belongings in front of their tents: a half-empty deodorant or shampoo bottle, a Barbie doll or stuffed animal. Others would lay down in the sun on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, wrapped in the gray floor covering used by painters, their excrement a few meters away. On one Sunday morning, a girl of perhaps 12 was sleeping on her stomach on the sidewalk, naked from the waist down.
According to official statistics, there were 24,000 homeless people in São Paulo before the pandemic, the result of a 65 percent rise in the preceding four years. Aid organizations believe the official numbers are far lower than the reality.
Now, so many more have joined the already large army of homeless that every tiny space in the already densely populated city, it seems, is now occupied. São Paulo, this dystopian metropolis of inequality, the city with the largest helicopter fleet in the world and a million people living in favelas, simply has no answers to the crisis.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the city set up a few showers, toilets and facilities where people could wash clothes and dishes. But an initiative to house the homeless in hotels, like those in places like Hamburg and London, failed for lack of interest among hotel operators. The municipality declined to comment when contacted for this story.
The city’s political leaders have continued to rely on strategies like deterrence and expulsion. Near the Luz train station in the center of the city is an area known as “Cracolandia,” a place where a significant number of homeless drug addicts live. The police have repeatedly gone after the people here with tear gas and pepper spray, driving them out of the area – even in the middle of the pandemic.
People sleeping in and around the square in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral also live in fear of the police. Young people living on the streets report that the police have been known to set fire to their tents or take them away – or even beat up homeless people.
The city’s wealthy have long since sought to isolate themselves from the streets, the exhaust, the constant traffic jams, the noise and the filth. They have retreated to their penthouses high up in the residential towers or to gated communities, traveling in their helicopters and private jets.
The middle class, meanwhile, tries to come to terms with the suffering in the city’s streets. Some donate the clothes they no longer need or buy an extra carton of milk in the supermarket to give to someone. But there is no shortage of conflict, especially in those districts where economic interests and homelessness collide – places, for example, where real estate agents are trying to advance gentrification. Fires are regularly set and there have even been cases of homeless people being given food containing poison or shards of glass.
Aid workers also feel like they are in danger. Seventy-seven-year-old Padre Lancellotti – the Catholic priest who has run a small church in the Mooca district for the last 30 years and who straps on his pink gas mask every morning except for Saturdays to hand out breakfast to those in need – reports that he has received death threats over social media and is frequently verbally abused in public. “It’s the hatred people have for the poor,” Lancellotti says. “Just like you in Europe hate the refugees, people here hate the poor.” He speaks of “daily, institutionalized, systemic violence against the homeless.”
Eduardo Suplicy, a member of São Paulo’s Municipal Chamber with the Labor Party, has been trying to improve things for the homeless for many years. Last year, he pushed a law through the Municipal Chamber that was intended to strengthen the civil rights of the homeless and give them a bit more dignity. Soon, a new law will be voted on that will establish explicit criteria for how officials are to treat those living on the streets.
Still, even laws that are passed aren’t necessarily implemented, as demonstrated by Suplicy’s greatest political success. Seventeen years ago, as a Senator in Brasília, he wrote a law according to which every single Brazilian citizen was to receive an unconditional basic income. The law was passed by the National Congress and signed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was president at the time. But it has never been implemented.
“Every day, we are seeing more people on the streets of São Paulo,” Suplicy says, “which is why the moment has now come to introduce ideas like the unconditional basic income.” He has once again begun fighting hard for the introduction of the concept, and he believes he might be on the path to success. Suplicy is currently the honorary chairman of a group of more than 220 parliamentarians who came together last year for “the defense of the unconditional basic income.” Still, the government of right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro must sign off on the regulation.
“Transforming emergency financial relief into a permanent basic income would be the correct move,” says Kohara of the human rights group Centro Gaspar Garcia, which also runs a program to help homeless people. He believes that in a society that is structured like the one in Brazil, in which a large share of the population “works today so they can eat tomorrow,” – a society in which a lot of people are extremely vulnerable – an unconditional basic income, Kohara says, could be a solution, provided it is high enough.
“We saw a lot of positive developments in the period when emergency financial relief was being provided,” Kohara says. “Some homeless people even joined forces to rent a shared apartment.”
“Ending up on the street is easy, but finding your way back gets harder from month to month,” says one of his colleagues. With every month on the street, she adds, the chances of finding your way back to a normal life are reduced.