Landing in Brazil and I’m tired from the sleepless night flight and taking in the atmosphere of a whole new country. Plane journeys are exhausting when you’ve convinced yourself that you’re keeping them in the air with the power of your mind!
Thousands of tower blocks greet us and five-lane traffic is the norm – it’s like ‘Wacky Races’. I decide it’s best not to watch and so I put my faith in our trusty driver and watch the world of São Paulo go by. It’s like I’m watching a film – shiny, fierce, new tower blocks wrapped in ancient tropical trees bring a whole new meaning to concrete jungle! Above the roar of traffic, I can hear birds singing. The juxtapositions and extreme contrasts that São Paulo is home to are evident right from the start.
That afternoon we go straight to interview a well respected journalist from São Paulo at an ‘occupation’ – an hotel or office that has been taken over as housing by a community that previously lived in the sprawling São Paulo favelas. A building has to be vacant and disused for a certain number of years before a community can put in an attempt to occupy it. It takes such a long time and so much organisation that any thoughts I may have had beforehand that I was going to meet opportunistic squatters quickly vanish.
The occupation we are visiting used to be a hotel, named The Lord Hotel. It is now The Lord Occupation. It has a strange ghostly atmosphere, there’s a glimmer of an affluent past in the marble floor of what was once a grand foyer. It is now sectioned off to make room to house more families and the large picture window which once would have flooded the grand entrance with light is now bricked up.
The journalist, born and bred in São Paulo, is eloquent about it all. It is simple to him; the poor are kept down because they’re taxed harder than the rich.
We move on to another occupation to meet Nette. She was homeless and on the streets with her two young children for two years before she first formed an occupation. She now works as a child protection officer whilst also volunteer working with the housing committee to help support families living in the occupations. They are campaigning for the tower blocks to be renovated and made into social housing. The one that she shows us has been deemed structurally sound and purchased by the Government, so in time their campaign will succeed. It’s a huge half victory she says, but it has taken 12 years! Now they need to keep the pressure on so that the work actually gets done.
There are 26 floors and no lift, so priority is usually given on the lowest floors to the elderly, disabled and mothers of the young. The block is dark and very damp at the bottom and gets lighter with less humidity towards the top, so there is a price to pay for not climbing the stairs! These buildings were in their prime 20-30 years ago and have been empty since, so they are as you would imagine, derelict. Only the bare concrete bones of the tower block remain, crumbling and graffiti-ridden, but they are a roof none-the-less. Each floor has around 10 self styled flats housing a family each, often with many children. All 10 families share the landings single toilet.
We meet Christina, a single mother and her two young sons, aged 2 and 8. Like many other women I will go on to meet, she often uses the word dignity. She has hers in heaps: she has a lemonade cart that she has been able to buy because of her place here and sells beer at the weekends.
Like all the women here, she is strong, vibrant and forward thinking and becomes a shadow of herself when asked about the past or what brought her here. She left home with her sister at 11 years old. She tells us the streets were more appealing to her than what was at home…. we don’t press further. She goes to great lengths to tell us that she is clean and that she has never resorted to selling herself, although it is clear that she had been stolen. Looking back is not an option for these women and it is this that drives them forward to create these communities, to strive for a better future for their children. Christina tells me she cannot look at an 11 year old girl now as it makes her realise how tiny and vulnerable she was when she was first on the streets. She is 29 but says she feels twice that because of all that as happened to her.
We then meet a lady whose name translates as ‘Saint of Lost Souls’. She was an abandoned street child, left in a mental hospital as a baby because her parents didn’t want, or maybe didn’t know how, to cope with her mental problems; problems I could see no sign of. She was on the streets for many years with her five children, but says God told her to come to this tower block. She now has a tiny two rooms that she built for herself at the very top of the building. She works as a cleaner and is so proud to tell me that every trinket, picture and carefully cared for object in her home she has paid for herself and owns. She is only able to do this because she is not having to pay rent as she would do in one of São Paulo’s favelas.
She says she is thankful every day for what God and Nette did for her. She tells me that she counts every one of the 462 steps up to the top of the building and, despite being eligible for a lower level flat because of her age, she says: ‘No, on every step I say: Thank you, Lord.’ She also chooses to stay on the top floor where she can see out and breath, and feel like a champion, a fighter, a survivor. She will keep on being one, on top of the world.
When I ask Nette how she feels about the landowners and businesses who own these tower blocks, she says simply, ‘They should be paying taxes for ‘lack of use and contribution.’ – In theory a legal obligation if their building is in the centre of the financial capital and neither being used or maintained. She says if they were paying those taxes, they would be going towards our social housing and we wouldn’t be in such a predicament, so they are part of perpetuating the problem.
The people living here in these occupations all work. There is no denying that there will be sex workers and drug dealers but the majority are cleaners, chamber maids, electricians and carpenters. There are also simple but unbendable rules. For starters, no alcohol and no drugs; of course they’re not stupid – they know not everyone is a saint – but the fact is that if you arrive home to the occupation and are too drunk or drugged up, you are sent away to sleep on the street for the night and given a warning. The third main rule is no violence towards women: a common problem that goes hand in hand with the drugs and alcohol. They all pay a little each towards a porter, so it is easier to maintain the peace and keep the building safe.
Other rules include that every man must have a job, every child must go to school and every woman and man must contribute to maintaining the building. There is a communal kitchen and if you cook there, you must offer food for one and all. If you don’t want to share your food, you go elsewhere to cook it. They run a library and a crèche, and there are shops on each floor where people sell things: cigarettes, lemonade, or food from their flats. It’s all such a simple democracy. When asked who will stay and who will go once it becomes social housing, the answer is easy: the people who have contributed and are good for the community will stay.
One thing all the workers in the building have in common is that they are paying taxes that will go towards hosting next year’s World Cup, and from which they will get no benefit. They won’t get to see a match because of the price of tickets and they fear that any money meant for their re-housing is now going towards building the shiny new Arena Corinthians stadium, where the first match of the tournament will be held next June. They say: ‘with our hard earned money, you are building your FIFA standard stadiums with your FIFA standard grass; we’d like our FIFA standard hospitals and FIFA standard education and homes’
It’s the end of the day, and there has been so much to take in – so many courageous women, strong and active communities. I’m left wondering what tomorrows favelas will be like. Today has been so positive; everyone I met was so happy and grateful for the very little that they have. I say very little – I mean that in a materialistic western way: having no bathroom; no bedroom; a damp, dark concrete 4 square meters that could be taken from them any day.
What they do have though is a wealth of support in their own built community; a positive hope for the future and half a battle won. If this is the good picture after 12 years of fighting I wait with bated breath to see where they came from tomorrow in the favelas.