21 December, 2017
Luciano Oliveira looks at the floor of the small poorly built wooden house where he lives. It is among thousands of similar poor homes in an occupation near the city of Sao Paulo.
Oliveira was fired from his restaurant job at a few months ago, after arriving from the northeastern state of Bahia.
"I can't read. I can't write. And I have nowhere else to go," said Oliveira, 23. "But here I met so many people like me. I feel I am part of a movement now. This has become my family."
More than 8,000 shacks and poorer shelters make up Oliveira's occupation, or "squat." It is one of the largest in Brazil. The 20-year-old Brazilian group, Homeless Workers Movement, organized it and others across the country. The group seizes abandoned government buildings to house homeless people. Sometimes the group negotiates with governments and private companies for such use.
Brazil continues to recover from economic crisis. Oliveira's neighborhood shows how difficult life has been for the poorest Brazilians.
The labor union research organization DIEESE says almost 42 percent of squatters are unemployed. That is almost 30 percentage points above the national average. On average, they earn about $350 a month, less than the average cost of rent for a two-bedroom home in Sao Paulo's metropolitan area. Seventeen percent of 15 to 17 year olds in squats are not attending school. Instead, many must work to help their families survive.
The occupation near Sao Paulo has little electricity. Some shelters are no more than pieces of plastic on the ground and above. Others have wood walls and floors.
Adriana Marcolino is a DIEESE researcher.
She said Brazil is not investing enough in social policies, including the minimum wage. She said more such occupations may be established, as a result. She called the squatters "the face of Brazil's poorest citizens."
For many, the squatters are the face of Brazil's deepest poverty.
Many entertainers organized a concert in central Sao Paulo on December 10 to raise money to help the homeless. Grammy-award winner Caetano Veloso sought to perform at a squat. A judge barred him from doing so, saying it was unsafe.
People who live near the squatters are less sympathetic, and have called on them to leave.
"They make noise all night long. They don't care about people that were already here and are not to blame for their situation," said neighbor Carlos Elias. He lives in a building of costly homes next to the squatters.
Recently, gunshots were fired at the occupation from a nearby building. One squatter was wounded in the arm.
The Homeless Workers Movement has received much attention this year. Some think its leader, Guilherme Boulos, will run for president next year.
If so, he would take votes away from former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the frontrunner. But Lula da Silva may not seek any office at all. A court found him guilty of corruption in July and sentenced him to more than nine years in prison. The case is in the appeals process.
Boulos said whether to run "is not a decision for now." He said his biggest concern now is the squats.
Recently, squatters seized the headquarters of Sao Paulo state's housing administration and demanded negotiations with the government. They did not leave until the government agreed to let the squats remain for at least four months while the two sides held talks.
On a recent day at the squat, most tents sat empty as their owners were out looking for work. Some people made use of the five kitchens and several bathrooms.
Renata Swiecik, 31, has lived in the squatters' neighborhood for three months. She last held a steady job three years ago. She begs to support her four children. She says her two youngest live with their grandmother mostly, so they do not have to bathe in cold water every day.
"When the cold comes at night and during our showers we can't pretend that we want to be here forever," she said.
The building company MZM owns the land on which the squat sits. The company is taking legal action to reclaim the property. In October, a court ordered the land be returned to MZM.
The squatters have ignored the decision.
Luciano Oliveira spoke of possible police action to remove the squatters.
"If they come we will be here." he said. "We have nothing to lose."
I'm Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
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Words in This Story
squat – v. to live in a building or on land without the owner's permission and without paying
shack – n. small house or building that is not put together well
conviction – n. the act of proving that a person is guilty of a crime in a court of law
frontrunner - n. the person or thing that is most likely to win a race or competition