RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – It would be easy to mistake the Rio Acolhedor Municipal Social Reinsertion Unit, in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Paciência, on the city’s west side, for a country club.
On the nine-hectare (22.2-acre) property, which features 5,500 m2 (59,000 ft2) of building space, there are two soccer fields, an indoor sports court and two pools, one of which is close to Olympic size. The shelter offers literacy classes, general curriculum and training for construction or other manual labor-related jobs.
The shelter also offers athletic activities, such as yoga, gymnastics, soccer and martial arts. Next month, swimming and water aerobics will also be added.
Creating shelters with more attractive facilities that offer a variety of services is the latest approach by the City of Rio de Janeiro’s Department of Social Services to prepare the homeless for reinsertion into society.
Last June, the state allocated two properties in the neighborhoods of Irajá and Jacarepaguá to the Department of Social Services, and the Mayor’s Office is investing R$9 million (US$4.94 million) to build shelters similar to the one in Paciência.
“We wanted to do away with the notion of exclusion by offering opportunities and providing those housed at the shelter with as much as possible,” says Paulo César Nascimento, director of the Paciência shelter, which was inaugurated in October 2010.
The Paciência shelter has 422 beds, 350 of which are occupied.
A psychologist for employees
The staff includes 152 employees: psychologists – one of whom works exclusively with the employees to help them deal with job-related stress – social workers, education specialists, teachers, speech therapists, physical education teachers, nurses and nutritionists.
“We have to offer incentives to make the people who use the shelter want to stay, because it’s not a prison,” Nascimento says. “A homeless person might accept coming at first. But if he wants, he can have a meal and leave.”
The shelter is equipped with a clinic, cafeteria and auditorium, among other amenities.
Drug users are able to participate in support groups, such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous.
The shelter also has an office where the homeless can register for identification documents and enroll in social programs such as “De Volta à Terra Natal” (“Back to my Birthplace”), which enables people to return to their native cities.
“Their time at the shelter is meant to be temporary, but you can’t put a limit on the time needed to rebuild family and emotional and social bonds,” Nascimento says. “The time spent at the shelter is determined by the conditions of each individual.”
Seniors have weekly meetings
Gerson Nepomuceno, 61, used the shelter to change his life.
Every Friday morning, he participates in senior meetings, which are led by Adriana Faria Coutinho, a speech and psychomotor therapist.
“I wanted to leave the streets. I even thought about renting a room, but I didn’t have enough money,” says Nepomuceno, who quickly chose his “message of the day” from among a dozen suggestions offered by the therapist: “I don’t have everything I love, but I love everything I have.”
Ademir Treichel, Rio Acolhedor’s coordinator general who formerly worked in the financial market as a business manager, says he brought a businessman’s perspective to the project.
“We instituted rules,” he says. “The people at the shelter need and want limits.”
Treichel picked the location, approximately 70 kilometers (43 miles) from downtown Rio de Janeiro.
“The distance and the cost of making a trip to the facility deter individuals from using the shelter for coming and going, and they wind up making more of a commitment,” he says.
In the beginning, the biggest challenge was gaining the neighbors’ trust, he says.
“Nobody wants a prison, an open-air market, a cemetery or a shelter close to their home,” Treichel says.
Neighborhood children practice judo at the shelter
Treichel organized several meetings with residents, and, in order to help bring everyone together, he opened the shelter’s facilities and allowed two volunteer judo teachers to give free classes to the community’s children.
“The parents used to hold their children’s hands and walk quickly in and out,” Treichel says. “Now, they’re so comfortable that they drop their children off at the door and leave.”
Treichel says the shelter’s policy is to respect the differences among the group, treating each person individually.
This mentality led Treichel to ask Aramis Fabiano Borges, 25, to play for a soccer team for the disabled during Soccerex, the international business fair held for the sport in Rio de Janeiro.
Treichel also bought the uniform used by Borges at the Soccerex and took photos of him with Cafu, the former captain of the Brazilian national team.
“I’ve also played for the soccer team of the Niterói Association of Disabled Persons (ANDEF),” says Borges, who walks with a limp.
Major challenge: Reconnection
Reconnecting with family members is a major challenge of the project, Nascimento says.
Maria de Lourdes da Silva Carvalho, 60, who has spent six months at the shelter, says she lived on the streets even when she had a place to stay with a relative.
“I wasn’t able to adapt, so I went back to the streets,” she adds.
Nascimento says the specialists do not limit their work to helping those living at the shelter, as they often reach out to the residents’ families.
The shelter’s residents may have left home because of a traumatic event or because their addictions led to their being asked to leave.
“That’s why we thought it was important to teach rules about hygiene and group living, so the individual would be better equipped to return home,” Nascimento says.
Data regarding the work of Rio Acolhedor is still being collected, but progress has been made, Nascimento says.
“We’ve been able to bring families together and find people jobs,” he says. “Now, some come by just to say ‘thanks.’”