Homelessness Surges in Brazil’s Biggest Cities as Covid Fades
It started out with a couple dozen soups doled out to Sao Paulo’s neediest. Twenty months after the onset of the coronavirus, a line of hundreds of lunch-seekers forms every morning outside Robin Mendoca’s office downtown, snaking for blocks under one of the city’s main avenues.
“We started attending 30, then 1000, and now 1400 people daily,” says Mendoca, president of the Sao Paulo chapter of the State Movement for the Homeless Population, or MEPSR. “And every day it grows.”
Covid is fading from Brazil’s biggest cities, but hunger lingers. In Sao Paulo, Latin America’s largest city, MEPSR, an advocacy group, estimates the number of people who can’t afford housing now totals over 66,000, nearly triple the amount of the most recent census taken in 2019. In Rio de Janeiro there are over 14,000, or about double the last official count from last year.
A spokesperson from the mayor’s office in Rio de Janeiro declined to comment on unofficial data, while Sao Paulo’s city government said it is currently conducting a census of the unhoused. But economic scars from the virus are now in plain sight as millions of Brazilians try to return to their pre-pandemic lives.
Tents and flimsy shelters line sidewalks. Entire families beg at busy intersections. Lines wind out of the doors of churches and organizations providing relief.
The wait for a spot in a hotel-turned-shelter in central Rio called Hotel Acolhedor or “The Welcoming Hotel” begins in the early morning. “You have until 3 p.m. to secure a bed, otherwise it’s back to the streets,” says Almir da Silva Junior, at recent evening. The 25-year-old bricklayer was laid off three months ago. He and wife left their daughter with its grandparents in the suburbs and began camping downtown.
“The job site closed, and I was hopeless,” da Silva Junior says. Now a regular at the shelter, he says he’s turned his attention from finding meals to job leads. “With some luck I soon won’t be standing in line.”
Vaccines are now widespread, but double-digit inflation is wearing away feeble gains Brazil made after climbing back from last year’s economic crash. President Jair Bolsonaro, who downplayed the risks of the virus since its outbreak, initially provided billions of dollars worth of emergency aid to the nation's poor to cushion the blow. The relief was scaled back and is set to expire at the end of this month.
The president is now promising to significantly expand cash transfers to the poor ahead of next year’s elections. There’s little doubt of the need, but economists fear more public spending could fan prices further.
“Money doesn’t last anywhere,” said Andreina Santos da Silva, 21, checking into the Rio shelter. She and her husband left their home near the Amazon city of Manaus six months ago, taking a job with a moving company that brought them to the ocean-side city of Fortaleza, where the owner refused to pay.
The couple tried to pick up odd jobs in cities along the Brazilian coast, before making the long trek south to Rio in hope of more steady work. They slept on the beach three days before hearing of the Hotel Acolhedor.
“Here’s where we’re going to start over. Here’s where we’re going to rent a room of our own,” she said.
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