Priests Criticize Violence Against Homeless People in São Paulo
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Father Júlio Lancellotti, the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s vicar for the homeless, advocates for homeless people in Brazil.

By Eduardo Campos Lima, OSV News

SÃO PAULO  — São Paulo authorities have been continually failing to find ways to deal with the growing number of homeless people in Brazil’s largest city and financial hub, according to priests with decades of experience working on the streets.

A study conducted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (known by the Portuguese acronym UFMG) showed that the number of people living on São Paulo’s streets went up from 48,000 at the end of 2022 to 52,000 in February of 2023. But the city offers only 24,000 beds in shelters for people without homes.

“It is noticeable that there are many people that do not receive support from the state. The city government claims that it can give shelter to everybody, but that is not true,” Father Júlio Lancellotti, the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s vicar for the homeless, told OSV News.

A longtime human rights advocate in the city, Father Lancellotti has been a strong voice against what he says is the local government’s increasing repression against homeless people.

In February, the city government decided that it would remove the thousands of tents scattered over the sidewalks and squares. Father Lancellotti and other human rights activists filed a lawsuit to impede it, and the measure was temporarily forbidden by a court ruling.

In April, a higher court suspended that ruling and the city government resumed the removal of the tents.

“A norm of the city government impedes it to take personal belongings, medicines, clothes, documents, and tents from the homeless. That recent measure disrespects its own norm,” Father Lancellotti argued.

In his daily work in the central area of São Paulo, a historical district where most of the homeless population is concentrated, he has been seeing how they look more and more fragile and disturbed.

“They are not even getting a chance to drink water. When we go there to give them hot meals, we have been taking a 64-gallon tank to give them water. It ends in a minute,” he said.

The combination of insufficient relief programs with increasing police violence has been leading to an especially serious situation concerning drug addicts.

Since the 1990s, thousands of crack users have occupied a vast area in the central district of São Paulo known as Crackland. Mayors and state governors have always presented plans to extinguish it, but all of them failed to do so.

In 2021, the city government launched a massive police operation to put an end to Crackland. The continuous presence of hundreds of police officers in the area carrying out frequent raids dismantled it, but now groups of crack users can be seen in different parts of the district — and of the city as a whole.

“What are the effects of such actions? People are now scattered, but the problems continue. It only generated fear and hostility among the local residents and shopkeepers,” Father Lancellotti said.

Those policies have been disorganizing the street dynamics of the homeless people, leading them to wander for new zones and creating a feeling of insecurity, Father José Francisco dos Santos, who heads the Franciscan Social Action organization (known as SEFRAS in Portuguese), told OSV News.

“We have been feeling a growing demand for meals. New people come to us every day. And the atmosphere is more and more tense, with more people intoxicated approaching us,” dos Santos told OSV News.

SEFRAS has a team of 60 workers and volunteers who distribute about 3,000 hot meals daily. The rising tension in the relationship with people without housing has led the organization to build a therapy program for the staff.

Dos Santos argued it is inevitable that the increasing police repression provokes more violence on the streets. Over the past months, outbursts of vandalism and looting have been reported every now and then.

“Treating every drug addict as a criminal is not fair. At the same time, it generates more violence,” he said. The sudden removal of groups of homeless from their areas during cleaning operations also is unacceptable, dos Santos added.

Father Lancellotti considers that Mayor Ricardo Nunes and state Gov. Tarcisio de Freitas have been implementing such policies in order to address the interests of the real estate market.

De Freitas announced a plan to move the government headquarters to the central district months ago. Many of his critics, including Father Lancellotti, think that the crackdown on drug users in the area is part of the process and that his idea is to prepare that zone for private investment.

“It is an ancient target of the real estate companies. That district is connected to subway and train lines and important avenues and hosts museums and theaters,” Father Lancellotti said.

In his opinion, real solutions for the homeless people and the Crackland require complex actions connecting different areas and branches of the government, with massive investment in programs that could attain thousands of people.

“The first step is to take the police dimension out of the table. The war on drugs cannot be the basis of the measures that will be taken,” he argued.

Catholics, he said, should not support hostilities and violent policies, and should instead be inspired by the pope’s message concerning the connection between human dignity and the need for shelter.

“Unfortunately, we are very distant from Pope Francis as a Church. He seems to be more valued by the people and not so much by the institution,” he concluded.

Eduardo Campos Lima writes for OSV News from São Paulo, Brazil.

Featured Image: Police stand guard near homeless people during an operation in São Paulo, Brazil, April 8, 2023. Local authorities have been continually failing to find ways to deal with the growing number of homeless people in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and financial hub, according to priests with decades of experience working on the streets. (OSV News/Leon Rodrigues, courtesy Prefeitura de São Paulo)

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OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics. It is a part of OSV Publishing, a division of OSV, the largest English-language Catholic publishing company in the United States. OSV, based in Huntington, Indiana, was founded in 1912.