Brazil has pledged a series of sweeping measures to help a homeless population that has soared tenfold over the past ten years, amid a biting economic downturn and the global pandemic.
The Visible Streets plan, launched by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this week, will see eleven government ministries work together, with initiatives ranging from health and work to food security and tackling “institutional violence”.
It comes after the country’s Federal Supreme Court made a move to decriminalize homelessness, ruling in August that local governments cannot forcibly remove homeless people from the streets.
Brazil’s homelessness problem reflects a racist legacy
Almost 70% of Brazil’s homeless are Black, El Pais reports, compared to just over 50% of the population at large – a disparity that reflects the country’s deep-rooted legacy of slavery, as well as ongoing racism and systemic discrimination. Activists say policies such as an anti-crime bill promoted by the recent former president, the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro who held power from 2019-2022, exacerbated racial inequality.
With most of Brazil’s homeless living in and around favelas in cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where income inequality is most pronounced, part of the Visible Streets plan will be an educational campaign to tackle “aporophobia” – or fear of poor people.
A priest-turned social media star is leading the charge against ‘hostile architecture’
Father Júlio Lancellotti is Catholic priest with 1.6m Instagram followers who is famous for advocating for Brazil’s homeless. In 2021 he went viral for using a sledgehammer to demolish sharp rocks installed under a bridge by São Paulo authorities to deter rough sleepers. This week, Lula signed the Father Júlio Lancellotti Law, which aims to tackle the prevalence of “hostile architecture” – urban features such as spikes drilled into steps, or benches that are slanted to prevent people from sleeping on them. “Architecture is also not neutral [but can] be manipulated for certain interests,” Lancellotti told architecture website Arch Daily last year.
Seeing housing as a basic human right
With the new campaign being led by its Ministry of Human Rights, Brazil wants to demonstrate that it sees housing as a basic right, unlike more conditional or punitive approaches. São Paulo is already following the Housing First philosophy, which seeks to quickly move people into independent and permanent housing, NPR explains, while providing them with health services and support in finding jobs. The financial center is building “micro houses” to help its large numbers of unhoused into shelter, reports the BBC. “The idea is immediate access to housing, and then work on problems…instead of putting housing at the end of the staircase and you have to prove your worthiness,” Deborah Padgett, an NYU anthropologist who has advised Brazil on homelessness, told Semafor. Brazil isn’t the first Latin American country to explore this approach: Chile’s Housing First program has seen a 90% success rate.