Without a Roof/Sem-Teto

For the past two days I have been reading through student journals commenting on a panel session that they attended on homelessness.  Three presenters spoke directly and eloquently to these Vanderbilt students about life on the streets of Nashville, how they came to live there, and how they survive and strive to get off—and stay off—the streets.  The students were deeply moved and impressed with the testimonials of these three people, and forced to confront their own views of the homeless, and how to deal with homelessness.

Although these reflections dealt with homelessness in Nashville, Tennessee, they pushed me to think about the homeless here in Rio de Janeiro (known in Portuguese as “those without a roof”—sem-teto).  In a city like Nashville, with some 600,000 inhabitants, the number of homeless is generally estimated at somewhere around 1,800.  In Rio de Janeiro, a metropolis of 10 million, probably a third of the inhabitants live in slums (favelas), that is, several million people.  The roughly one thousand favelas in Rio range from those constructed over decades that have gradually been “urbanized” to include some paved streets, access to water, electricity and other services, to those of more recent origin.  The latter are closest to the shanty towns and tent cities we see in the U.S.  Built more recently with scrap construction materials, cardboard, and tarps, these favelas are home to hundreds of thousands of the truly abject poor—those living on less than $2 a day income.

A small section of the Rocinha favela

No one really knows how many Brazilians live on the streets.  In Rio, it must be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.  There is very little here in the way of the infrastructure that has emerged in the U.S. in the last thirty years—soup kitchens, Room in the Inn programs, and extensive municipal services aimed specifically at the homeless.  Historically, so much of services and assistance in Latin America have been provided by the government or the Catholic Church.  Civil society—the numerous private, voluntary organizations so common in the United States—has historically been weak in Brazil.

One striking feature of homelessness in Brazil is the number of children and adolescents living on the streets.  An anthropologist, Tobias Hecht, has written a poignant and eye opening ethnographic account of these children in the cities of Recife and Olinda in his At Home on the Street:  Street Children in Northeast Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 1998).  These children, like many adults, move back and forth between life on the street, and at times, the homes of their families or friends.

My students’ reflections on their personal experiences in interacting with the homeless in the U.S. forced me to reflect on my own direct experience here in Rio.  In particular, they made me think about one homeless man (I will call him Pedro) I have been seeing on my street for the past five months.  In those months, I have seen him sleeping in the doorways in different spots in an area of about four blocks along the Rua Visconde de Pirajá, the very busy commercial avenue where I live that runs the length of Ipanema.  His pattern seems to be to sleep and rest during the days at different spots along the street, and then stay up most of the night.  Most days, he has a small suitcase or bag of belongings.  He also seems to get food from different restaurants up and down the street.  In the evenings, he is usually in my block, most nights sitting near the entrance to the local supermarket, Zona Sul.  He usually has a small box of candies and nuts that he sells.  Starting back in late September, when I first noticed him, I began a daily ritual of stopping by the Zona Sul each evening to buy soft drinks for the next day.  As I leave the store, I stop and buy a small bag of peanuts from Pedro for one real (about fifty cents).  It does not appear he gets many takers.

Zona Sul supermarket on my street

Zona Sul supermarket on my street

After a while, he began to recognize me, and I got up the courage to try to talk with him.  Although I am highly fluent in Brazilian Portuguese, I can barely understand him.  Partly it is his speech patterns, but I think it is also partly because he has mental problems.  I was going to say that he is an “older man”, but he is probably only in his forties and just looks much older due to his hard life.  By Brazilian standards, he is black (that is, he is very dark skinned).  For about the past two weeks, he has been sleeping right in front of my apartment building so I see him in the morning as I come and go.  He recognizes me, but always seem a little confused when we greet each other and I try to speak with him.

Pedro’s plight personalizes homelessness and poverty in Brazil in ways that books and even having poverty around me everywhere in Rio cannot.  Pedro forces me to think hard about what to do about poverty in a very specific and concrete way.  He brings home the stark contrast between his life living on the street and my life in the comfortable apartment building looming above him.  (See my earlier blog entry, A Lucky Man.)   Even though some of us on this street may see him daily and provide Pedro with small amounts of money, food, or other help, that does not get him off the street.  In the U.S., I might be able to help him get into a shelter, at least at night.  Here, the number of people like Pedro on the streets makes that very unlikely.  The scale of the challenge here is so much larger than a place like Nashville or even New York City.  I am also not sure what Pedro wants.  I will keep trying to talk with him, and hope that we can begin to understand each other so that I can find out more about him.  Just maybe, he will help me understand the situation of those like him here in Rio and, just maybe, I can do something to help him.

The sidewalk in front of my apartment building.


One Response to “Without a Roof/Sem-Teto”

  1. Blake Eakin Says:

    Have you heard of the book Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth? It’s a book the discusses the resourcefulness of the people like those in the favelas and around the world while still being realistic about the troubles they endure. Neuwirth is a journalist who went and lived in several squatter communities like Rocinha and in places like Kenya and India. He has a pretty good TED talk about it too.

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