SÃO PAULO – After years of economic hardship, Brazil has seen the number of people without adequate housing grow significantly. Over the past three years, the homeless population rose 38 percent, to 281,000 people.

The South American nation now has 13,000 slums, known as favelas, twice as much as it had 10 years ago. Six million families are looking for a home, and 70 million Brazilians lack dignified housing.

With such circumstances, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) is promoting the formation of a nation-wide Favelas and Housing Pastoral Ministry. A group formed by activists who have been working with housing-related projects in different parts of the country has been meeting since 2022 and now plans to expand its reach.

The main force behind the project is the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas Pastoral Commission, which was established in the 1970s and has been the only one in Brazil to specifically deal with slums.

“We began our work by trying to identify the Catholic groups that already had connection with the struggle for housing in different parts of Brazil. We invited all of them to join us,” explained Father Luiz Antônio Pereira Lopes, who heads Rio’s Favelas Pastoral commission.

Capuchin Father Marcelo Toyansk Guimarães – who coordinates his congregation’s Justice, Peace, and Integrity of the Creation’s Commission – worked with Rio’s Favelas Pastoral when storms devastated the city of Teresópolis, in Rio de Janeiro State, ten years ago.

Now living in São Paulo, he invited Father Pereira Lopes to take part in the initiative to establish a national ministry.

“In general, the pastoral ministries dealing with housing have been losing strength over the past years. We decided it is about time to reinforce them and to establish new groups where they do not exist yet,” Guimarães told Crux.

The extraordinary growth of the Brazilian favelas over the past decades has not been accompanied by an increasing Church presence, Guimarães said. In most areas, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are now dominant.

Heliópolis, for example, which is deemed São Paulo’s largest favela with 200,000 residents, has only two parishes, Guimarães said.

“Other pastoral ministries occasionally visit favelas, poor neighborhoods, tenements, and occupied settlements. But usually, they cannot work side by side with the people to help them with their challenges concerning housing and community issues,” he said.

Problems connected to the lack of infrastructure in such areas – including basic services like garbage collection – are common and many times require community organization in order to come to the attention of the authorities.

Ecclesial movements have historically taken part in such initiatives – that was the case in the time of the formation of Heliópolis, for instance, in the 1980s – but now most of them no longer exist. At the same time, most Evangelical churches are not active in social justice issues.

“Over the past years, many governmental policies concerning housing and the living conditions of the poor have been dismantled. That situation was intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic and impacted millions of people,” Guimarães said.

Pereira Lopes said that groups from the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Santa Catarina, São Paulo, and the Federal District are involved in the formation of the new pastoral ministry. Last week, they released a guide to help ecclesial groups that want to establish a housing pastoral commission in their parishes or dioceses.

The guidelines include the need to strengthen the community organization in the light of the Catholic spirituality, training local leaders, and suggesting public policies to the government.

“Over the years, we learned that although it is not up to the Church to solve the housing problem, we need to be present in that struggle. And we need to have people in academia and in the government discussing such issues,” Pereira Lopes said.

Both he and Guimarães emphasized that Pope Francis has been calling on the Church to go to the peripheries and outskirts of the cities in order to reach the poorest in society.

“Housing is one of the three Ts that the pontiff has been demanding [tierra, trabajo y techo: Spanish for land, work, and housing]. That struggle is part of the Church’s social doctrine,” Pereira Lopes said.

The group’s plan is to organize an in-person meeting next year and officially establish the national pastoral ministry. It also asked the CNBB to adopt housing as the theme of a future Fraternity Campaign, the annual Lenten drive to collect funds for the Church’s charitable works and to highlight social issues.

“We have been noticing that many people are very hopeful about the Favelas Pastoral Ministry. The Church’s presence has been decreasing in the peripheries and we need to find new ways to be there,” Guimarães said.