Brazil: 4,000 homeless occupies buildings in central São Paulo

More than 4,000 homeless managed to occupy four abandoned high-rise blocks in the centre of São Paulo on early 21 July.

The military police managed to stop the occupation of two other buildings. On 19 July 300 families camped in a plot of unused land in São Bernardo do Campo (close to São Paulo) owned by Volkswagen. Cars with loudspeakers announced the occupation which grew to 3,000 families! The São Paulo state governor Alckmin (PSDB) called the military police to stop the occupations as soon as possible rather than doing anything about the huge problem of homelessness.

A group of members from Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Brazil) visited the occupied buildings, the old hotel Terminus, to show support and speak to the occupants. We spoke to Elisângela da Silva and Ednalva da Silva Franco that are on the coordination committee of the occupation organized by "Movimento Sem Teto do Centro" (Movement of Roofless in Centre) and other movements.

“We began our occupation in the middle of the night. The police followed us from the church where we had gathered. The police got here before us but we managed to enter. The owner of these buildings haven’t payed any taxes for a long period, one of them owe 3.5 million reais in property taxes.

“We have now 506 families in this building, more than 800 people. It’s very crowded, there is only 72 flats. There are rooms with 14 people. We are still dividing up the rooms. Most people here have jobs, temporary jobs or are street sellers.

"We divide up all tasks with a commission for food, one for security etc. Everybody must help. It’s the first occupation for almost everybody. We have been making preparations for 7-8 months. The families take part in an education program, with political and civil education and more.

“We organize studies in the buildings like English and reading and writing for adults. We have a voluntary teacher from London.

“We have electricity and even a telephone now, but no water. Neighbour helps us with water. But we have problems with lack of food, we try to get donations.

“Most of the people in the coordinating committee are women. Women are in the forefront in fighting for housing for their families.

The movement demands that 2,000 families get housing in the centre of town by the end of the year. They also demand that the empty buildings are declared "social interest" and are used for housing of homeless families.

“People here are firm and want to organize, but we feel politically isolated. We need support from the people. The leaders of the Union of Housing Movements are not supporting our occupation, they say that they are negotiating with the governor. But that’s really scabbing. We have been fighting since 1999 and the state haven’t given us anything without a fight. The MTST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto, The Roofless Workers’ Movement, initiated by the MST, Landless Rural Workers’ Movement) support us, but they have their own occupation in São Bernardo to take care of.

“We are simpathisers of PT. We worked hard for the party in the elections, but now the party doesn’t even want to speak to us. Did you see Marta Suplicy (PT mayor in São Paulo council) on TV? She was a disgrace. She said that "occupations have nothing to do with me. It’s a mather of public security and the responsibility of the state governor, Alckmin". She has our programme but has never spoken to us. The assistant of the Secretary of Housing on the council phoned us and asked us to end the occupation and not to try to involve the mayor’s office.

One of Marta Suplicy’s contributions to "public safety" has been to expand the council police force and use them to harass the street sellers. Thousands of families have street selling as their only source of income. The council police raid the streets and confiscate their goods, leaving them with nothing.

It’s ironic that one of the occupied building, the hotel Danúbio, was used by PT for meetings before. But the occupation ended after a threat of the police to invade, after a court ruling. But the other buildings stand firm.

We spoke also to Harley Silva Miranda and Fernanda Dantas do Nascimento who stay in one room with their three children. There are 12 people living in the room right now.

“We payed rent. But my husband’s employer didn’t pay him anything for three month and the owner still made us pay the rent, says Fernanda.

“We don’t have any alternative. It’s not fair that there are buildings that stand empty for years. I don’t want this future for my kids, say Harley.

“This building have been empty for 12 years, says Fernanda.

“We had to clean the whole building. It was really dirty and full of rats and other animals. There are small children and handicaped people here, they deserve better”.

The situation is desparate for milions of poor people in Brazil, both in town and in the countryside where MST struggles for land to the milions of landless. 1 percent of the landowners control more than half of the land, while 4.5 milion have no land at all. The occupation of land have increased this year, but Lulas government have done next to nothing to implement a land reform.

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August 2003