Mass occupation underscores Brazil’s poverty, creates angst

Luciano Oliveira, a bricklayer, gazes at the floor of his tiny wood shack, which is one of thousands of makeshift settlements that comprise a massive squat in this suburb of Sao Paulo.

Oliveira was fired from his job at a restaurant a few months ago, shortly after arriving from the northeastern state of Bahia.

“I can’t read. I can’t write. And I have nowhere else to go,” said Oliveira, 23. “But here I met so many people like me. I feel I am part of a movement now. This has become my family.”

Oliveira resides in one of the more than 8,000 tents and improvised structures in Brazil’s biggest occupation, organized by the increasingly powerful Homeless Workers Movement. For the last 20 years, the group has taken over abandoned buildings and sometimes unoccupied land with the aim of negotiating with governments and companies for housing for the working poor.

Sprawling across a roadside area about the size of 10 soccer fields, the latest occupation underscores how tough life has been for the poorest Brazilians as the country struggles to recover from its most severe economic crisis in decades.

Almost 42 percent of occupiers are unemployed, nearly 30 percentage points above the national average, according to Dieese, a labor union research institute. Average income is about $350 a month, less than the average cost of rent in a two-bedroom home in Sao Paulo’s metropolitan area. And 17 percent of youths between 15 and 17 years old are not attending school. Many of those may need to work to help their families survive.

The squat, which sits between the factory of Swedish truck and engine maker Scania and elegant apartment buildings, has almost no electricity. Some tents are no more than pieces of plastic on the bare ground, while other structures are built more sturdily with wood.

The majority of the camp’s inhabitants sleep on mattresses or airbeds on dusty ground.

“This occupation is a portrait of Brazil’s poorest,” Dieese researcher Adriana Marcolino said. “We are not investing enough in social policies, including the minimum wage, so we might see more and more places like this appear.”

With Brazil suffering high unemployment and a sluggish economic recovery from a massive recession, the occupation has amplified polarization in the country ahead of presidential elections next year.

After a judge blocked Grammy-award winner Caetano Veloso from singing at the camp — allegedly for safety risks — multiple singers and actors paid visits to the occupation and organized a concert in central Sao Paulo on Dec. 10 to raise money.

People who live near the squatters are less sympathetic, and have called on them to leave.

“They make noise all night long. They don’t care about people that were already here and are not to blame for their situation,” said Carlos Elias, who lives in the elegant apartment buildings next to the occupation.

Recently, gunshots were fired against the encampment from neighboring buildings, injuring one resident in the arm.

At the same time, the homeless workers movement has obtained such attention that its leader, Guilherme Boulos, is talked about as a presidential candidate for next year.

If Boulos did run, he would split much of the voting electorate on the left with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who remains the front-runner but could be barred from the race if a corruption conviction is upheld. Whether to run “is not a decision for now, it is for next year,” Boulos said. “Our priority is the occupation.”

Recently, dozens of the squatters occupied the headquarters of Sao Paulo state’s housing secretariat until they received assurances that the Sao Bernardo do Campo encampment would not be cleared for at least four months while they negotiate.

But the future of the occupation remains uncertain.

On a recent day at the encampment, most tents sat empty as their owners were out seeking jobs. Some inhabitants made use of the five kitchens and several improvised bathrooms.

Renata Swiecik, 31, has lived in the occupation for three months and last held a steady job as a cashier three years ago. She now lives on donations to support her four children and says her two youngest daughters live with their grandmother most of the week so they don’t have to take cold showers every day.

“If it weren’t for this occupation, many people here would be dying,” she said, adding that “when the cold comes at night and during our showers we can’t pretend that we want to be here forever.”

The land is owned by construction company MZM, which is fighting in the courts to reclaim it. In October, a court ordered the land be returned to the company, which did not reply to requests for comment.

The squatters have ignored the ruling.

“If they come we will be here,” Oliveira said, referring to police. “We have nothing to lose.”

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