SÃO PAULO – Father Júlio Lancellotti’s photo went viral last week as he joined city government workers to tear down devices to keep homeless people from lying down under two bridges in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and financial hub.
Lancellotti, who is the archdiocesan vicar for the homeless, passed under two bridges over a busy avenue in São Paulo’s eastern zone on February 2 and noticed that rocks had been embedded beneath their abutments in order to prevent homeless people from sleeping in the area.
“We took pictures of the rocks and began to pressure the city government. The next day, there was a crew working to remove the devices from the bridge,” he told Crux.
But the workers didn’t have machines and were doing the job manually.
“I asked one of them to give me a sledgehammer and started helping them. That was when the picture was taken. It was a symbolic gesture,” Lancellotti said.
The next day, machines were sent, and all the rocks were taken out. The city government claimed that the devices’ implantation had been an unauthorized measure taken by an employee, who was later fired.
After the removal, Lancellotti organized a demonstration under one of the bridges. The participants brought flowers and positioned them where the rocks used to be.
Lancellotti said the so-called “hostile architecture” is not new in Brazilian cities. In 2019, for instance, the installation of jagged stones under bridges in Belo Horizonte caused a national controversy, and the use of anti-access spikes and other devices in public areas has become commonplace over the past few years.
“It’s very offensive. The hostile architecture attacks the homeless in order to show them that nobody wants them to exist. They’re refugees in their own city,” he said.
Father José Francisco de Cássia dos Santos, who coordinates the Franciscan Solidarity Service, said that the use of devices to keep the homeless away is part of a “set of aggressive governmental policies that don’t solve any problem.”
“Those measures are an attempt to give simplistic answers to difficult problems. The State aggressiveness against the people on the street is something common in Brazil’s history,” he told Crux.
Dos Santos said there are influential sectors of society often support these measures, either due to their own hostility towards the homeless or due to their inability to stand the sight of their dreadful living conditions.
“Many people just don’t want to see the problem,” he added.
Yet, the economic crisis intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil has been forcing more and more poor workers to live on the streets. According to the federal government, there were more than 33,000 homeless families in São Paulo at the end of 2019.
“Their numbers are certainly growing. During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, we had to offer six times more food to the people on the street than we used to do before COVID-19,” Dos Santos said.
Now that businesses are beginning to reopen, the Franciscans have reduced the number of hot meals they distribute in São Paulo and other cities, but they still realized that most of the people they serve are living in extreme poverty.
“People are fighting for the same handouts. There’s growing violence and it’s provoking the dehumanization of the homeless, with impacts on their mental health. Our volunteers have been requiring special attention from us, because they feel all that in their daily activities,” Dos Santos explained.
An increasing brutality from the police against the homeless is another aspect of the same problem. In December, a police raid in an area known as Crackland – where thousands of homeless people and drug addicts spend the day smoking crack – caused a riot in downtown São Paulo. As they fled the policemen, the homeless attacked and robbed cars, shops, and pedestrians. The incident caused outrage and many demanded tougher measures against the homeless.
“The pandemic exacerbated the social violence against the homeless. A lot of food is being given to them, but violence is a huge problem, and nobody cares,” Sebastião Nicomedes de Oliveira, who used to be homeless, told Crux.
De Oliveira lived on the streets of São Paulo from 2003-2008, and then became an activist that helped to launch a national social movement for street people.
“Some people were certainly moved by Father Lancellotti’s action. But I’m sure that other segments became even more disgusted with the homeless after that,” he said.
De Oliveira said that it’s not only the State that acts against the homeless.
“Shop owners, building janitors and security also have different strategies. They implant spikes in front of their properties and throw chemicals on the sidewalk,” he claimed.
Recently, De Oliveira noticed that employees of the building where he now works and lives installed a water spraying device in its front marquee, which is activated to repel the homeless people that camp there to sleep and beg for money.
“I blocked the pipes and it’s not working anymore. If they reconnect it, I’ll cut the water again,” he said.
The isolation of the homeless in the city is so profound that COVID-19 has only had a small impact on them.
“Nobody comes near them, nobody touches them. Social distancing measures had been imposed on them long before the pandemic,” Dos Santos said.
De Oliveira added that there’s no solution in sight for the housing crisis in São Paulo and other Brazilian big cities.
“With the pandemic, everything is more difficult, including the homeless political organization,” he said.
Lancellotti agreed that the housing shortage in São Paulo is huge and no city government can really oppose the real estate industry’s interests.
“Every mayor acts according to the will of the real estate lobby,” he said.
Despite all difficulties, the priest says he’ll keep fighting for the homeless.
“Our struggle is not for the right of the homeless to live under bridges. What we want is that every person in the city has a decent house,” he said.