PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Paulo Ricardo da Silva, a 45-year-old who has been homeless since he was 9, is afraid of closing his eyes for the fear of being attacked while he sleeps.
Instead, he rests in one of Porto Alegre’s plazas during the evening and by 2 a.m., he’s awake so he can protect himself.
The violence Silva is trying to avoid extends far beyond being shooed away from one resting place to another.
“That happens all the time – we’re used to leaving in a hurry,” he says. “What I’m afraid of is getting hit with a stick, taking a beating, that kind of thing.”
From April 2011 to March 2012, 165 homeless were murdered in Brazil, according to the National Center for the Defense of the Human Rights of Homeless People and Collectors of Recyclable Materials (CNDDH).
About 1% of Brazil’s population – 1.8 million – lives in the streets, according to the NGO Moradores de Rua.
“With the crack problem, people’s perception of the homeless population has changed a lot,” Silva says. “A lot of people think that they’re all on drugs, but that’s a lie. There are a lot of working people and students who live on the streets and in shelters.”
Silva used to have a job as a construction worker, but he now collects recyclable materials and sells the newspaper Boca de Rua , which is published by homeless and at-risk persons in Porto Alegre.
The publication is supervised by journalist Rosina Duarte and the Free Agency for Information, Education and Citizenship (ALICE). Copies cost R$1 (US$0.49) and the money is donated to the homeless.
Change of direction
Using the money he earns, Silva hopes to change his life. He enrolled in the Federal Government’s My Home, My Life Program, which facilitates the purchase of housing in low-income communities.
“Even when I have my own home, I’ll never forget the homeless,” he says.
Reinaldo dos Santos, 45, is also enrolled in the Federal Government’s housing program. The native of the state of Bahia ran away from home in 1996, afraid of his family, which was involved in the drug trade.
From 1996 to 2000, Santos traveled throughout Brazil. After spending nights in public squares, streets and shelters, he understands the violence faced by the homeless.
“I saw people being beaten and I saw the work of the death squads,” he says. “The homeless live in constant fear.”
Santos, who works as an activist and defender of the homeless, lives in a hotel in Porto Alegre that rents rooms to those without a home. He is also enrolled in the Federal Government’s ProUni program, which provides scholarships to private universities, and is studying law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS).
Government seeks to end impunity
Statistics from the CNDDH confirm that, in most cases, the perpetrators of violence against the homeless population are never identified.
Of the 165 murders registered by the CNDDH in which the victim was homeless, 113 police investigations stalled because the killers were never identified.
In addition to the murders, the CNDDH registered 35 attempted murders and several cases involving bodily harm against the homeless.
Disque 100 (Dial 100), a hotline offered by the Human Rights Secretariat of the Office of the President, recorded 453 reports of torture, neglect, discrimination and sexual assault against the homeless.
“We don’t know what leads to this kind of act, whether it’s hatred, the vulnerable situation in which these people find themselves or their relationships,” says Wellington Pantaleão, intersectoral coordinator of the Human Rights Secretariat’s (SDH) National Policy for the Homeless Population. “What we’re doing is studying measures that will allow us to take action in response to the crimes themselves.”
One of the measures is encouraging public safety officers at the state level not to close the cases involving crimes committed against the homeless.
Using information gathered by the police, SDH hopes to create a profile of this type of crime to establish preventive measures by the end of 2012.
“Our first experience working together was a success,” Pantaleão says. “Thanks to efforts by the Public Prosecutors and Public Defenders Offices of Recife, we were able to identify and arrest a suspect accused of using a firearm against a homeless person, who died on April 8, at Praia da Boa Viagem.”
Another strategy being studied by SDH Minister Maria do Rosário is the creation of specialized police units, which will work with the homeless in each state.
The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) will conduct a survey of the country’s homeless to help SDH establish specific policies targeting this population.