SÃO PAULO –As the municipal elections get close, a priest in São Paulo has become the target of threats due to his work with the homeless people of Brazil’s largest city.

Father Júlio Lancelotti, the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s episcopal vicar for the homeless, has been the victim of such threats for decades. His social activism among the poor and drug addicts has made him many enemies, including members of the police forces which operate in the city.

Last year, the Organization of American States (OAS) called on the Brazilian government to secure his safety.

Lancelotti’s critics argue that his work with the homeless perpetuate their presence in the central, historic areas of the city, driving down property values. A large proportion of São Paulo’s 25,000 homeless people live in the city’s historic center.

On Sept. 15, Lancelotti released a video on social media saying that he had been insulted by an unknown motorcyclist.

“A motorcycle passed by me and the guy said: ‘You sun of a b…, crackhead-protector priest.’ After some mayoral candidates have attacked me, I’m increasingly at risk,” the priest claimed in the video.

A few homeless men assisted by the priest can be seen in the video confirming his story. One of them declares that such things happen all the time.

Lancelotti told Crux that several homeless people have recently been talking about motorcyclists shouting insults and issuing threats.

“The context of such attacks is the mayoral campaign in the city,” he said.

Brazilians will vote for mayor and city councilors on Nov. 15. In São Paulo, the area colloquially known as “Crackland” – an open-air drug market in the city center – has become an election issue, especially since it attracts addicts and homeless people.

Civil society organizations usually visit Crackland to distribute meals and medicine to the drug addicts. Catholic activists, like the ones belonging to Lancelotti’s Homeless Pastoral Commission, also work there. Police operations involving SWAT-type units using tear gas and other shock-and-awe tactics are common in the area.

Shop owners and real estate developers have been complaining about the city’s mismanagement of Crackland for decades. Several projects to contain the “deterioration” of the area have been proposed in the past, and many business leaders claim the Church’s social work in the area is encouraging homeless people and addicts to stay.

Mayoral candidate Arthur do Val, a far-right digital influencer who was elected State legislator in 2018, has harshly criticized Lancelotti’s work on social media and in interviews to the press.

“What Father Júlio Lancelotti does is destructive for the city of São Paulo,” he told the Brazilian newspaper El País. In the same interview, he declared that “people believe that the priest knows [the Crackland] reality, but he doesn’t, he appears to give them food on behalf of non-governmental organizations, but he doesn’t solve the problem.”

“I doubt that the priest has ever taken a walk in Crackland,” Do Val told El País. However, Lancelotti’s pastoral commission has been continually working in Crackland and the priest has celebrated Mass there dozens of times.

Do Val’s statements added fuel to the fire in an already polarized election. As the arguments in favor of a hardline stance on the homeless population in has become an increasing part of the campaign by the right in São Paulo, human rights activists, including Catholics, are being associated with the left-wing.

In Lancelotti’s opinion, the current political rhetoric doesn’t take into account the importance of the social work carried out by the Catholic Church among the homeless, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The number of cases on the street was not so great as it could be, in part because of the work that many organizations have been doing to raise awareness on prevention and to distribute food and hygiene kits,” he said.

The Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, said on Sept. 17 that “it’s necessary to help the poor, to accompany them instead of offending, insulting or threatening the ones who take care of the poor.”

“If, possibly, someone wishes to create a political advantage with such despicable attitudes, he surely will be punished by God,” Scherer continued.

Bishop Pedro Luiz Stringhini, president of the regional episcopal commission, released a statement expressing solidarity with Lancelotti and asking the São Paulo authorities to ensure that he remains safe.

On Sept. 25, various social movements and human rights organizations organized a vigil in honor of Lancelotti. One of the organizers of the event, the former State legislator in São Paulo Adriano Diogo – a member of the left-wing Workers’ Party – said that the priest is being targeted by the far-right for political reasons.

“It’s a political technique: They generate fake news and attack a famous person,” he told Crux.

“As a Catholic, I can say that Father Júlio Lancelotti is a genuine follower of Christianity’s tradition of solidarity. Unfortunately, there’s now a true disgust for the poor in society,” he said.