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How Were People Experiencing Homelessness in Rio Impacted—and Assisted—This Winter?

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This is our latest article in a series created in partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University, to produce articles for the Digital Brazil Project on climate impacts and affirmative action in the favelas for RioOnWatch.

Winter brings longer nights and shorter days. Depending on location, it can also bring strong winds, snow, frost, and fog, with different impacts in regions around the world. In Brazil, winter starts on June 20 or 21 and ends on September 22 or 23. This year winter started on June 21 and ended on September 22.

In mid-July 2021, Rio de Janeiro experienced low temperatures. In the district of Jacarepaguá, thermometers reached 8.4ºC (47ºF) and 9.8ºC (50ºF) in the neighborhood of Alto da Boa Vista. These temperatures have a significant impact on people experiencing homelessness, given their inability to shelter from the cold, further increasing their vulnerability.

Below we present some civil society initiatives that mobilize to perform acts of solidarity for people experiencing homelessness in Rio de Janeiro, people whose condition was aggravated this winter by cooler temperatures and the pandemic.

The People of the Street Pastoral Committee and Its Supporting Actions

In the 1970s and 1980s, the People of the Street Pastoral Committee was established by the Catholic Church in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. The initiative opened shelters for people who were experiencing homelessness at the time and organized popular representation movements, providing support, for example, to waste pickers.

According to Tânia Maria Ramos, a social worker for the Pastoral Committee in Rio de Janeiro, their work in Rio began in 2000, through the strong appeal of Dom Eugênio Sales, who, at the time, asked that each parish in Rio open its doors to people experiencing homelessness. Ramos reports that the People of the Street Pastoral Committee works along the foundations of Decree 7,053/2009, which establishes the National Policy for People Experiencing Homelessness, guaranteeing their rights constitutionally. The decree was consolidated along with civil society, public authorities, and users of the Pastoral Committee, incorporating the demands of each one.

Ramos says that the basis for all actions is rights and acceptance: “This woman and this man who are now on the street have a history, this is [just their] current reality. These people didn’t just spring up from the sidewalks. Something took them to the streets. We build directly with them thinking of a resumption of dignity. The mission of the Pastoral Committee is to bring this resident in so [they] can have their true dignity restored, rediscovered. When someone ends up on the street, they lose the bond of family, there is a rupture. Our proposal is to help this person rebuild their bonds of affection. It’s not just drugs that take them to the streets, there are countless situations such as unemployment, [and lack of] housing, which are crucial. Many are in this situation because they don’t have a home, because they can’t afford to pay rent. And then there’s the issue of family feuds.”

The Homeless Population in Times of Covid-19 survey—conducted with volunteers from the People of the Street Pastoral Committee and grassroots organization Port With Life, together with the Center for Studies in Health and Gender from the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC-Rio) Department of Social Services in partnership with the University of Dundee—brought specific data on the population experiencing homelessness in the city of Rio de Janeiro. 304 people were interviewed: 259 men, 45 women, and one transgender individual. The study was carried out during the months of August, September and October 2020, across the city.

The survey found that the majority of people experiencing homelessness were over 40 years old, although ages vary by location. In Central Rio, the population was younger, while in the South Zone, older. Regarding race, 221 declared themselves black or brown (73%). Most have been on the streets for over five years. In Central Rio, they have been living on the streets for less time, while in the West and South Zones people have been there longer. Only 61 people (28%) studied beyond elementary school. The numbers show that 218 people interviewed said they work in recycling or doing odd jobs (72%).

Ramos explains: “How can we talk about a person’s pain if we don’t listen to them? People experiencing homelessness have a very interesting jargon, they say: ‘Don’t talk about me without me!’ That’s why we did this research during the coronavirus pandemic. Based on it, we can help these people have better living conditions. We put the study together in drawings, as comics, so they can follow more easily. [Then] we met with the interviewees, showed them the video and the results… Last year, the City of Rio also carried out a sample survey. But, for us who work on the street, [their] data do not match reality. The city has tried to show that there are only 7,272 people experiencing homelessness. The number is much higher.”

Regarding donations, after vaccination began, the social worker says: “Right at the start of the pandemic, society mobilized to make donations. But since the beginning of the year, donations have decreased a lot. We are living a constant struggle, especially those of us who deliver hot meals, because we’re in short supply of donations. And it was horrible during the cold. In recent months, the cold has been very sharp here in Rio. The municipal government said that the doors to the shelters were open, but the shelters only hold 2,000 people. If the municipal survey recorded 7,000 people experiencing homelessness, where would the other 5,000 go? I’m not saying city government didn’t house people, but it wasn’t enough. The People of the Street Pastoral Committee fought tooth and nail for the authorities to open the Sambadrome as a shelter, and we didn’t succeed. We had to go out delivering covers and thermal blankets made from milk cartons. That’s what warmed people up on cold nights.”

Public Sinks and Fighting the Cold for the Unhoused

When it comes to people living on street corners and sidewalks, the pandemic caused by Covid-19 has put a magnifying glass on inequalities. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, the main guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) were to stay home and wash your hands. The Kindness Sink project was born for this reason. The project, a portable sink, was developed by women to give people experiencing homelessness the right to also protect themselves against coronavirus. The first unit was sponsored by the Union of Federal Judiciary Servants of the State of Rio de Janeiro (SISEJUFE) and, soon after, soccer player Marcelo Vieira, from the Real Madrid team, sponsored another 100 units. In one week, 100 portable sinks were installed in Rio de Janeiro.

The project’s creator, Anna Paula Rios, is the president of the Instituto Lar (Home Institute), an initiative that offers several activities “that help people experiencing homelessness recover their dignity, self-confidence, and independence.” According to Rios, “We, at Instituto Lar, work directly to fight hunger and the cold. In the month of July, 5,100 hot meals were delivered and over 300 blankets were distributed. It’s important to emphasize that the institute’s work is supported by donations. The Institute’s activities support the social reintegration process of people experiencing homelessness. These activities will continue regardless of the season. Government campaigns do not reach everyone who is living situations of social vulnerability. For this reason, the work of NGOs and social projects is crucial. We have no way of measuring how the lives of these people would have been without the involvement of NGOs and projects during these last months of the pandemic. We need a lot of donations to be able to help everyone who comes to us.”

Gender in the Streets

Women living on the streets are even more invisible to passersby and public authorities. Aware of issues involving gender and race, the Black Streets women’s collective emerged in 2019, after its founders, Pamella Oliveira and Pamela Lessa, met volunteering at an event.

Pamella Oliveira, 26, believes that the best way to act in solidarity with people experiencing homelessness is through affection: “We were very concerned about what was happening to other black women. We started out delivering breakfast and realized that the majority of people on the streets were black women. We soon thought of projects and workshops that could recover and restore their talents and skills, so that they can occupy spaces beyond the streets. We understand that people occupy the streets in different ways: there are people who pass through them and others who live in them. We were left concerned about the inequality and violence that they, these women, suffer. So, we started to mobilize to change this reality.”

Queen’s Day, Black Streets’ first direct action, took place in February 2020, in a shelter in Niterói, Rio’s sister city across the Guanabara Bay. For the occasion, the group prepared a program including integrative therapies such as reiki and talk circles. Listening to cisgender and transgender women living on the streets disarmed any preconception the protagonists could have had. “We always had an idea stuck in our minds that the women would not accept our ideas, that they would be rude to us. We now understand that isn’t the case. They need to wear a sort of armor to defend themselves. We talk a lot with the trans population because they suffer a lot of violence and that’s why they need to arm themselves in different ways, mainly with their tone of voice. We eventually realized that by strengthening our bonds with them, all that would disappear. They are wonderful people, very affectionate, very sweet… we lost our prejudice because we got to know these women in practice,” said Oliveira.

Black Streets is especially attentive to the winter period, according to Oliveira. “Last year, we had a drive and, in addition to clothes, we donated soup and broths. This year, we learned that people died from the cold and we bought 500 blankets and partnered up with collectives from the North Zone (from Penha, Vaz Lobo, and Irajá), the West Zone (Campo Grande), and Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense (Duque de Caxias), to carry out deliveries. Our priority is always women, but they’re not always the majority on the streets. In winter, we always mobilize to serve all kinds of people and we prefer to do night rounds. We donate blankets, socks, pants, and caps. Our basic foodstuffs donation is limited to the 15 families that currently participate in our projects. During our assistance actions, we deliver warm meals, clothes, and personal hygiene kits.”

As soon as the health emergency began, Black Streets launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to deliver personal hygiene kits and snacks, since donations have declined massively this year. Olivera explains how the lack of new donations hinders help for those experiencing homelessness: “We hardly received any clothes to distribute. That’s why we set up a crowdfunding page online in February 2020 and reached our goal two months later. In the kits, we put shampoo, conditioner, menstrual pads for women who get their period, and baby wipes for those who don’t. For us women who can afford this sort of thing, it seems simple, but for girls in social vulnerability, it’s not quite like that.”

Oliveira adds, “Today, what keeps Black Streets going are individual donations. We don’t get any [institutional] support. We were strengthened by public bids that were actually meant for culture, and which we had to adapt to serving the unhoused because there’s nothing very significant out there, for them, in terms of bids. Sponsors don’t want to invest a lot because it’s an area in which results take time, and you can’t always measure them. So that ends up keeping people who are doing a lot of really great projects from getting some very powerful work done. We end up getting kicked to the curb. There are so many requirements, that we’re not always going to be able to meet them.”

Black Streets has a team of over ten volunteers working hands-on. Awarded the Careli Medal, a special award given in celebration of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s (Fiocruz) 120 years, the collective has already helped 1,318 people in social actions and 150 women living on the streets and in shelters. Entrepreneur Camila Pavoni, 29, helps put together the groups that work on the streets. She says, “Black Streets has taught me to have empathy for people. It has taught me that I can’t give up on my dreams, that I have to pursue my goals, and be a better woman in every aspect.”

About the author: Born and raised in Vilar dos TelesSão João de MeritiBeatriz Carvalho is a journalist, media-activist, feminist, and founder of Mulheres de Frente.


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