Brazil’s urban homeless

He juggles the bundle of papers under his arm from side to side. It aches down one side when you stand holding them for long, he explains.

The magazine Ocas, which gives work and a voice to the homeless in Brazil
The magazine Ocas, which gives work and a voice to the homeless in Brazil

Waldir Moreira dos Santos has been selling the homeless magazine, Ocas, for which he gets to keep half the R$2 price (two-thirds of a US dollar) outside a cinema in downtown Sao Paulo since it was launched in June 2002.

He looks younger than his 49 years, gentle and sincere. He has a space to live nearby since the last time we spoke.

He says the winter has been hard because people do not hang around in the street; they rush into the cinema for a cup of coffee or go home.

The Civil Organisation for Social Action produces a magazine, Ocas, for sale by homeless people on the streets of Brazil’s biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as an instrument for social integration and a way for the homeless, or sem-teto, to get “legitimate money and a dignified work”.

They have so far helped about 500 people.

Street papers

Ocas is one of the latest examples of the worldwide phenomenon of street papers.

It is a member of the International Network of Street Papers that now number over 40 across four continents – from Namibia in Africa and Melbourne in Australia to St Petersburg in Russia and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Marcos Jose Dias sells the magazine in front of FNAC, a department store for the latest computers, digital cameras and DVD players. He says he gets on well with the armed security guards who protect the front doors.

“There’s a lot of misery around and if no-one does anything about it, about education and about poverty, there’s no way of going forward”

Marcos Jose Dias,
magazine seller

“I came from the lower middle class and today unfortunately because of the things that happen to us in life I became the person who lives in the street or lives in a hostel. In my experience, in the little experience that I have, that person is at the bottom of the pile and thank God that I am bringing myself up again.”

“There’s a lot of misery around and if no-one does anything about it, about education and about poverty, there’s no way of going forward, understand? The soul of the thing is here, in misery and in poverty. There needs to be education for these people, for them to get out of this life and work on this process. If you don’t work on this process you don’t get anywhere,” he says.

Huge problem

But although Ocas is a lifeline for every individual it helps, the scale of the homeless problem in Brazil is vast. Its infamous favelas, or slums – literally illegally occupied land – house millions, some of which have existed for over 100 years.

Waltier lives in Heliopolis, a favela in Sao Paulo of 100,000 people living in a mix of absolute and semi-poverty. There is one library with about 300 books for the whole community. He describes how it was created.

“Heliopolis is about 30 years old, it means city of the sun in Greek. People started coming here, first to play football – there was a football pitch here – and then they started building houses … well, shacks, not houses … and more and more shacks … and so Heliopolis was formed.”

Brazilian President Lula da Silva (L)unlikely to affect significant change

Brazilian President Lula da Silva (L)
unlikely to affect significant change

“The favela started to develop – you’ve got to sort out where to live first, then education comes later. So the favela was built, the houses built, the community built.”

“We see on the television the problems of the people in the North East, the hungry people. But you don’t have to look that far. Here in Heliopolis you see the same thing,” he says.

Social movements

Brazil is already home to one of the most dynamic social action movements in the world, the 20-year-old countryside landless peasants’ Movimento Sem Terra.

With their voice on the streets beginning to be heard through Ocas, other groups are taking symbolic direct action.

In August 2003, 400 homeless families occupied an abandoned area of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen’s plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo in Sao Paulo.

It was a highly political gesture, as the region where the President of the Republic, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, held mass strikes in 1979 that eventually brought down the military dictatorship.

Forcible evictions

Anti-riot policemen destroy aHomeless Workers Movement tentencampment  last month 

Anti-riot policemen destroy a
Homeless Workers Movement tent
encampment  last month 

But more than 800 military police with dogs and horses and teargas came to forcibly evict them. “We had to leave the area in the middle of a war operation mounted by shock troops and strong political force,” said a spokesman for the Movement for Homeless Workers.

Moved on twice more from outside the city hall and the church square, they were eventually offered help by one of the most powerful social forces in Brazil – football supporters.

Traditionally the team of the urban poor, the fans of Corinthians football club, known as Timao, or Big Team, came to help. Like most clubs’ football supporters, the Gavioes da Fiel, or Hawks of the Faithful, have their own samba school for the fiercely-contested annual Carnival, and offered shelter in their headquarters.

Thirst for justice

Expectation for social change for the Brazilian poor has been heightened ever since the historic victory of the Workers’ Party and President Lula on 27 October 2002.

But as Genesia da Silva Miranda, a youth worker in Heliopolis says: “We are thirsty for justice, for a more equal distribution of wealth, but it is not enough for us to have voted for him, we have to accompany the process now, keep an eye on who we’ve elected.”

“I believe that when you know what your rights are, when you demand what you have a right to, then you can achieve what is rightfully yours. With your arms crossed you don’t achieve anything.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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