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BRAZIL: Homeless Squatters Find &#39Social Function&#39 for Empty Buildings

Mario Osava

SAO PAULO, May 25 2007 (IPS) - The dark entry hallway and a lower floor full of rubble that smells of excrement make it difficult to imagine that this was once a busy hotel, located next to two train stations in the central Luz neighbourhood of the southern Brazilian city of Sao Paulo.

Santos Dumont hotel. Credit: MSTC

Santos Dumont hotel. Credit: MSTC

The building has been abandoned for 13 years, Silmara Congo, who lives on the fifth floor of the former Santos Dumont hotel with her four children, her husband and her mother, told IPS. They moved in on Mar. 25, when the Homeless (or literally "roofless") Movement of Central Sao Paulo (MSTC) occupied this seven-floor building with 33 rooms on each floor, which are now home to some 150 families.

The MSTC had already taken over the building three years ago, but the owner got them evicted.

Now he has taken a different stance, and has not even turned to the courts, probably because he is no longer interested in maintaining a derelict building that has accumulated a bulky debt in municipal taxes, according to Congo, one of the MSTC&#39s local coordinators.

The squatters now hope to stay in the disused hotel, and have even begun adapting the rooms to their needs, adding to the piles of rubble that are "the main problem to be solved," said Congo.

Her own family knocked holes in two walls, where they hung doors, to create an apartment complete with a kitchen and bedrooms.

The families with six or more members, like Congo&#39s, were assigned three rooms each. Single people or couples without children were given one, and the rest received two.

The movement is well organised, with cleaning shifts on each floor. At the beginning, the food was prepared collectively.

With a frequently unemployed husband and four kids ranging in age from six to 18, Congo&#39s family has been living in squats or slums for the past 10 years.

The Sao Paulo city government was providing a rent allowance for poor families, paid directly to their landlords. That programme made it possible for Congo to rent an apartment for the past few years. However, the assistance came to an end just before she and the other squatters moved into the old hotel.

In central Sao Paulo neighbourhoods, there are 400,000 housing units that are not in use – over half of the metropolitan area&#39s housing deficit, as estimated by the Ministry of Cities.

Greater Sao Paulo is one of the world&#39s biggest cities, with a population of around 19 million.

The proportion of unoccupied dwellings compared to the number of people without decent housing is one reflection of the social injustice and inequalities that afflict Brazil, where a large part of the population cannot afford to pay rent.

The situation is similar around the rest of the country. In Rio de Janeiro, 18 percent of apartments and houses are unoccupied, and in Brazil as a whole the total number amounts to nearly five million, while there is a shortage of around seven million units, according to Raquel Rolnik, secretary of urban programmes in the Ministry of Cities.

Brazil&#39s large cities have a tendency to expand, with the poor living in shantytowns on the outskirts and some of the rich heading even farther outside the city limits, to private semi-rural luxury estates and gated communities.

Organised movements reclaiming buildings for people without decent housing, including the urban homeless and low-income workers, many of whom are active in the informal economy, have been growing since last decade, especially in Sao Paulo.

The Brazilian constitution, rewritten in 1988, explicitly recognises the right to decent housing, and states that property, whether urban or rural, must serve a "social function." Unoccupied buildings or unproductive land thus became more susceptible to expropriation by the government in the social interest.

The main form of struggle used for years by the MSTC and similar groups is unannounced mass occupations of disused buildings. The activists reject the term "invasion" used by the local press to describe these actions, arguing that they are reclaiming their rights and that they negotiate the acquisition of the buildings on reasonable terms.

"We have occupied over 30 buildings" since the MSTC emerged in 1997, because the tactic is "the only one that brings results," said Ivaneti de Araujo, the general coordinator of the group, which according to her has 3,500 active member families and twice that number of registered families.

Many of these families are living in slums, with relatives or friends, or in housing from which they could be evicted at any time because they have not kept up on the rent.

"Neti", as this high-spirited dark-skinned 34-year-old activist is known, initially stood out in the movement thanks to her experience from living on the streets.

During the first occupation in which she took part, of an abandoned hospital in late 1998, when the food ran out in the community kitchen she did not hesitate to take the lead in asking for donations in the streets and in shops and businesses, which the others could not do "because of embarrassment," she told IPS.

Araujo went to work cutting sugarcane and harvesting peanuts at the age of eight, in the sugarcane-growing district of Guariba, 330 km from the city of Sao Paulo. She did not attend school beyond fifth grade because she would "fall asleep in class" out of sheer exhaustion from the hard work, she said.

She later held low-paying jobs in a nearby town, before moving to Sao Paulo with her husband and three children, the first of whom was born when Araujo was just 15 years old.

But in the city, she and her husband fell on hard times when they both found themselves unemployed at one point, and the family ended up living on the streets for several months in 1998.

Her life changed when she joined the MSTC, where "I learned in assemblies and seminars that I had rights," and began to acquire the skills to eventually lead meetings and make public speeches.

She now lives in the old Santos Dumont hotel, where she and the others are waiting for the authorities to provide an official solution to the problem, by means of an agreement between the city government and the owner of the building. The squatters are also in need of a source of financing, in order to purchase the building at an affordable price.

The leaders of the homeless movement groups do not receive any pay for their work, among other reasons because their members cannot afford to pay, since they can&#39t even afford to rent the cheapest shantytown dwellings.

"Women are bolder," Araujo told IPS, explaining the fact that most of the leaders of the group are women. "They feel a greater need for a home, to provide shelter to their dependents," while "men feel guilty for not being able to provide for their families, and crumple at the first difficulty. Many of them fall into alcoholism," she said.

Some fathers say "they want to die because they are not capable of stealing or killing to prevent their kids from going hungry," said the activist.

"The future will be one of continuous struggle and few victories, but it&#39s worth it, because if you don&#39t fight, you&#39re dead," said Araujo with respect to the prospects for the movement, which has chalked up as many successes as failures in its numerous occupations of buildings that are not fulfilling "a social function."

Turning "the marginalised into proactive agents of their own history" and "building a strong social movement that attacks the causes of poverty," with the goal of "building a socialist, fraternal and egalitarian society" are the guiding principles of the MSTC, which has joined 11 other groups to form an umbrella organisation, the Frente de Luta por Moradia (Pro-Housing Front) in Greater Sao Paulo.

Another group, the National Union for Popular Housing (UNMP), which emerged in Sao Paulo 20 years ago, forms part of a network that is active in 18 of Brazil&#39s 26 states, and has already secured housing for 50,000 families, nearly two-thirds of them in cities in the state of Sao Paulo, said the movement&#39s local coordinator José de Abraao.

"We promote socialism, based on self-management," he told IPS, after explaining that the network groups around 50 organisations in the state of Sao Paulo alone. Besides staging occupations and coming up with local solutions, the UNMP presents proposals for government measures, legislation and alternative sources of financing for affordable housing.

For example, it is discussing with the government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva a programme by which 1,100 unoccupied buildings that are in the hands of the National Social Security Institute would officially be made available to the homeless movement.

One of the buildings was occupied 15 years ago in Sao Paulo by the movement, which has only now obtained authorisation to convert the offices into apartments.

The UNMP has teams of architects and engineers who oversee construction carried out under the "mutirão" (collective mutual aid) system.

In addition, it negotiates discounts on large-scale purchases of quality products from suppliers.

Abraao underscored that the UNMP educates its members in self-management, to prevent further deterioration of the buildings they occupy. The network&#39s projects address the entire range of basic needs of the squatters, like education, health care and security.

This is a "school of citizens" he said, after citing his own case "of personal transformation brought about by the knowledge and skills gained in the movement," which enables him today to speak with the authorities on an equal footing.

The community leader decided to join the movement 16 years ago when he became painfully aware of the "social injustice" that deprives so many people of decent housing.

He joined together with some of his neighbours, and with the support of the UNMP was able to acquire his own home, leaving behind "the humiliation" of owing months of rent. That was when he became an activist in the homeless movement in his spare time, after his long working day cutting fabric in a garment factory.

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