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For tens of thousands in Sao Paulo, squatting is only way out

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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SAO PAULO, Brazil (AFP) — At home with her student daughter in their central Sao Paulo apartment, Rosangela Gomes de Melo hardly resembles a squatter.

But for Gomes de Melo and tens of thousands of people in Brazil's biggest, richest city, illegally occupying disused buildings is the only way to live.

Rent for a 50-square-metre (540-square-foot) apartment in the financial capital's centre costs about 1,500 reais (US$400), an impossible sum for a woman who earns only US$540 a month making jewellery that she sells in street markets.

“Squatting was my only alternative,” Gomes de Melo, 54, said.

Squatters occupy some 200 buildings in Sao Paulo. That amounts to 46,000 families, a huge number that reflects the severe shortage of housing in a metropolis that is home to Brazil's billionaire class, powerful media groups and the stock market.

But if the empty buildings act as an unofficial safety net, they can also be a death trap.

This month, a 24-storey building that housed the police headquarters before being abandoned to hundreds of homeless families caught fire in the middle of the night.

Incredibly, nearly everyone got out just before the structure collapsed in a fiery heap, killing at least seven people. But the survivors once more were left searching for a home.

Gomes de Melo and her daughter Beatriz have been in their building, called Maua, for almost nine years, paying only US$54 to a maintenance fund levied on all 237 families in the building.

They have a single room with a fridge, kitchen sink, television, basic furniture, and unpainted walls. The bathroom is shared with others on the floor.

It's not much but it means not having to live in the teeming, distant favelas and other poor neighbourhoods outside the centre, while allowing Gomes de Melo to save for Beatriz's studies in preparation for university.

“If I had to pay a high rent I wouldn't be able to invest in the education of my daughter,” she said.

Like many in Sao Paulo's army of the homeless, she sees her squat not as something illegal but as “a real fight for housing”.

“We're not different to other people. It's just that other people look on us differently.”

SELF RULE

Squatting is illegal in Sao Paulo, but the authorities can only evict if the owners first get a court order.

Generally the city appears to prefer turning a blind eye. It's easier than resolving the housing crisis.

According to the mayor's office, there is a shortage of some 358,000 homes. Another 830,000 are considered inadequate.

Filling this vacuum are numerous grass-roots bodies like the well-organiSed Housing Movement to Fight for Justice.

It helps to administer buildings like the Maua and the most famous of Sao Paulo's squats, nearby at 911 Prestes Maia Avenue. Said to be the biggest squat in Latin America, the former textile factory houses almost 500 families.

The authorities sought to clear the Prestes Maia after it was first occupied in 2006, but residents resisted. Then in 2015 the city, run at the time by a leftist mayor, bought the building.

But a promise to renovate it and hand it over formally to homeless families has yet to be fulfilled, leaving the homeless on their own.

To help administer the busy residence, organisers divide up the floors, with nine in Block A and 22 more in Block B.

Residents follow a weekly cleaning rota to maintain communal areas. There are security cameras and even a doorman, while house rules include not making noise after 10:00 pm, no fighting, and no domestic violence or robbery.

But the infrastructure is failing. Walls are in precarious conditions, windows are closed up with wood and other sheeting. There's damp in the lower floors, poor lighting and signs of leaks.

Few apartments have private bathrooms, with families generally sharing one or two facilities on each floor.

Those who break the rules are punished by being banished to higher floors — a real penalty in a high rise that has no functioning elevators.

SAVED BY SQUATTING

Brazilians aren't the only ones ending up in Sao Paulo's squats. The Prestes Maia building also houses Angolans, Bolivians, Nigerians, and Paraguayans.

The building's coordinator, Jeanette Andrade, admits that living “collectively is a hard concept.”

Andrade helps distribute donated clothes and food to the poorest residents and also assists with bureaucratic difficulties, like getting proof of residence.

She herself came here after a divorce and says the building saved her.

“The problem is the high rents in Sao Paulo. That's what pushes people onto the streets,” she said.

Marcia Goncalves, 59, also came here after separating from her husband. “I didn't know what squatting was at the time, but I didn't know where to live either,” she recalls.

Now she makes a living selling sweets and drinks from a small shop she has set up in her kitchen. It wouldn't be enough to pay rent — the building's us$28 monthly fee is all she can manage.

“My place is small and there are no luxuries, but it's enough,” she said.

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