[Hpn] Homeless protesters SQUAT abandoned buildings in Sao Paulo, Brazil fw Brazil fw

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Thu, 23 Nov 2000 21:56:50 -0800 (PST)


FWD  IPS Inter Press Service http://ips.org/index.htm

     HOMELESS STEP UP STRUGGLE FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING

     By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 18 (IPS) - Groups leading the struggle for housing in
Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, have begun to occupy abandoned buildings
and set up living quarters in downtown streets to press the government to
respond to their demands.

  The tactic is similar to that which has brought results for the Movimento
dos Sem Terra (MST - Landless Movement), which has garnered widespread
support both at home and abroad for its fight for faster and broader
agrarian reform, through well-organised occupations of land left idle by
large landowners.

  Around 30 buildings, most of which belong to the government and have
stood empty for years, have been ''invaded'' by squatters in the past few
months.

  And when they are evicted on court order, some families set up living
quarters with their scant belongings, in the street next to the building,
in a glaring protest against the lack of affordable housing.

  Some 2,000 homeless gathered outside the seat of the government of the
state Wednesday, demanding that announced low- cost housing projects be
implemented, and that their voices be heard when it comes to setting
priorities for the state housing budget.

  The housing problem in Sao Paulo, a city of 10 million, has been getting
worse and worse. ''Every day there are more people living in the streets,''
said Maria InÚs Volpato, legal adviser to the Housing Pastoral, a local
Catholic organisation that has assisted the homeless for decades.

  With the high unemployment rate, families cannot even afford to rent
space in what are known locally as ''beehives'' - old houses packed with
dozens of families living in ''terrible conditions, unimaginable for a
human being,'' said Volpato.

  The city Secretariat of Housing estimates that some 400,000 Sao Paulo
families lack even minimally decent housing. But experts in the matter and
grassroots movements put the number of people living in the city's
''favelas'' (shanty-towns) at around two million, with 600,000 crammed into
''beehives''.

  Given that outlook, taking part in organised occupations of buildings,
even if illegal, becomes an attractive alternative as a free of cost and
sometimes lasting situation, said Volpato.

  The occupations are headed by organised groups, like the Union of
Movements for Housing (UMM), founded 12 years ago by residents of
''beehives.''

  Recognised by local authorities as the informal mouthpiece of the
homeless, the UMM launched an offensive on Oct 25, urging families to move
into six buildings simultaneously.

  Such actions are aimed at forcing the municipal or state government to
seek solutions to the housing problem, whether by providing low-cost
housing with long-term financing or land on which to build apartment
buildings or small houses.

  Once plots of land are obtained, the UMM organises joint projects,
mobilising families to work together in solidarity to build their homes, in
what is known locally as the ''mutirao''.

  Besides building a sense of community, the shared projects pull down
construction costs, thus maximising the scarce resources available for
assistance to the poor, says the UMM, which adds that it builds each unit
at a cost 35 percent below the price tag quoted by the city government.

  But the group also fights for all of the rights to which citizens are
entitled, such as sewerage services,
  low-cost childcare, recreational spaces and, especially, schools.

  Everyone has to study, in order to achieve effective political
participation, said Donizeti de Oliveira, one of the group's three
coordinators.

  Official statistics put the housing shortage in Brazil at 5.4 million
units nationwide.

  The movement for affordable housing in Sao Paulo has become more radical
lately, as new organisations, like the Movement of Homeless Workers, have
cropped up.

  The success of occupations staged early this year, when 277 families set
themselves up as squatters in two buildings, allowed Hamilton de Souza, the
leader of the group seen as sort of an ''urban MST,'' to conquer new
followers.

  An occupation, even if it does not successfully obtain housing for the
families involved, is a political act that helps the movement grow, said De
Souza.

  The increasingly combative movement for housing is also attracting street
vendors, who have been at the centre of violent demonstrations in recent
years after being banned from doing business in certain neighbourhoods or
streets.

  ''We decided to react this way to the city government's repression of our
activity,'' because if not allowed to work, people cannot pay their rent,
said JosÚ Ricardo Teixeira, director of the Union of Informal Economy
Workers, which claims 12,000 members.

END/IPS - IPS Inter Press Service

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