SÃO PAULO – A Catholic priest in Brazil known for his struggles against what he calls “aporophobia,” or hatred of the poor, effectively has been vindicated by an Aug. 20 ruling by the country’s Supreme Court that city and state governments cannot seize the belongings of homeless persons during operations to clean streets and parks.
The confiscation of those belongings is a common practice in Brazil, and, according to critics, is often accompanied by police violence directed at the homeless.
In characteristic fashion, Father Julio Lancellotti celebrated the ruling while still criticizing São Paulo’s city government, as well as the governments of cities all over the country, for failing to comply with the decision.
“Nothing has changed till now. It is all the same,” Lancellotti, who is the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s vicar for the homeless, told Crux.
Lancellotti’s activism on behalf of the poor and homeless is well known, including by Pope Francis, who phoned the 74-year-old priest on Oct. 10, 2020, to encourage his work.
The Aug. 20, 2023, Supreme Court ruling upheld an earlier decree by a lower-court judge, Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who had cited Lancellotti in his decision ordering governments to respect the property rights of homeless persons.
De Moraes ordered the federal government to present a plan to deal with the homeless population within 120 days. State governors and city mayors were given the same time to present detailed studies on the number of homeless people and their needs and to establish a set of public policies to support them.
Lancellotti said that he questioned São Paulo’s city government about its actions, and officials told him that the city developed a plan in 2021 to secure the offering of public services to the homeless.
“But nobody who works with that segment has ever seen that plan,” he said. “If there is a program, it is clearly insufficient and inadequate, given the enormous quantity of people on the streets.”
A recent study estimated the number of homeless in Brazil at more than 200,000 people. In the city of São Paulo alone, there are more than 52,000. Over the past few years, a sequence of crises has left more and more people on the streets, according to Church activists who work with them.
“After Dilma [Rousseff, the former President] was impeached in 2016, we noticed a growing number of men on the streets,” affirmed Father Marcos Augusto Mendes, who leads the Bishops’ Conference’s Homeless Pastoral Ministry. Rousseff was a center-left politician and the former chief of staff to Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
An enduring economic crisis only got worse with the COVID-19 pandemic, “and pastoral activists all over Brazil began reporting that now entire families were living under bridges and in squares,” Mendes said.
Local governments have always had insufficient programs to deal with that population, the priest said, and violence against it has been a constant problem.
“A hygienist vision – a 19th-century ideology that establishes that the poor are dirty and bring diseases to the city, so they have to be removed to the outskirts – has always prevailed in Brazil,” said Mendes, who worked in the city of Salvador for years and now lives in Fortaleza.
De Moraes invited the Homeless Pastoral Ministry and other civic organizations for a meeting about the problem at the end of 2022, and heard their complaints about the disrespect to the legislation that secures the homeless people’s rights in the country.
The judge also visited Lancellotti’s parish in São Paulo, where hundreds of people receive help everyday.
“He decided to intervene as a result of those meetings and gave the new administrations a few months to begin working and implementing policies. Now they must provide evidence that they are taking care of that population and addressing the root causes of homelessness,” Mendes said.
The national Homeless Pastoral Ministry is present in some 40 cities throughout the nation. Reports of violence against the homeless and their forceful removal from certain urban areas keep arriving from most of them, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, he affirmed.
Lancellotti has been denouncing such actions on a daily basis in his social media, showing videos of people who lost their tents, luggage, and even food during police raids.
“The city governments just have not complied with that ruling,” he lamented.
Natercia Navegante, a member of the National Forum of Homeless People in Manaus, in Amazonas state, affirmed that no policies were created by the local government to take care of the increasing homeless population in the city.
“Especially during the pandemic, Manaus received many people from Venezuela, Peru, and from different parts of the Amazon. Many of them ended up on the street,” she told Crux, adding that the city has only one shelter and offers scarce relief actions.
A couple of months ago, Manaus city government launched a broad raid against the homeless and removed most of their belongings, including identification documents, which were not given back to them till now, Navegante described.
“Since the Supreme Court decided against the forced removal of the belongings of homeless people, there have not been new episodes like that. But no concrete measures to deal with that population were presented,” Navegante said.
She described the situation in the city as one of “total abandonment,” with children and elderly citizens thrown on the streets, many times with health issues and no support.
“I have seen diabetic elders with necrosis and the bone exposed. Those people were left aside,” she said.
Mendes said that the Homeless Pastoral Ministry is expanding its reach in Brazil, with a constant addition of groups in new cities.
“We need to put pressure on the cities and states so they will comply with the decision. Civil society needs to join this struggle,” he said.