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By Oscar Maldonado, Contributing Reporter

Criança na Lapa, photo by Stefano Figalo.
'Criança na Lapa', showing a young boy sleeping under a mural in Centro, photo by Stefano Figalo.

RIO DE JANEIRO – A one-off operation took place in Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood three weeks ago when 89 homeless people occupying sidewalk corners were taken off the street and given provisional shelter in the premises of the Centro de Recepção da Rede de Acolhimento do Município. The group consisted of 68 men, 15 adolescents, a family of 5 and one solitary child.

These 89 people belong to a far larger group which represents a very real problem the city faces: according to a national survey by the Ministério do Desenvolvimento Social e Combate a Fome, there are currently 4,585 homeless out of a population of around 6 million in Rio.

The social problem of homeless people within city limits is spread across almost every neighborhood, and while there isn’t a detailed study of which parts of the city have the highest number of street dwellers, the fact is that many of them flock to the main tourist neighborhoods in Zona Sul where, according to city officials, handouts are better and more money can be made from begging.

Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes launched in January Choque de Ordem, a project aimed in part at ‘cleaning up’ the streets’ homeless. However, Paes has received criticism for his efforts, mainly because the program has focused on wealthier parts of Rio such as Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana and failed to solve the problem, just shift it elsewhere. Indeed the Rede Comunitária Contra a Violência has dubbed the whole project as “merely aesthetic” and “a very weak effort to bring real solutions to the homeless problem in Rio de Janeiro”. The counter argument is that it’s simply not in the Prefeitura’s best interest to show local poverty spread along some of the most visited beaches in the country.

The idea of provisional sheltering for homeless people is in essence only a temporary solution but is in itself a very difficult mission, mainly because there aren’t enough places to accommodate everyone. According to the Secretaria Municipal de Assistência Social, there is a total of 2,254 spaces in the city, sufficient for only half those living on the streets.

Fernando William, chief of the Secretaria de Assistência, pointed out that one of the main goals of his administration is to improve the 61 shelters under his command. To William, fighting back the problem of homelessness in the city requires the joint efforts of the private sector and civilian population, and as he stated, “The Secretaria is always looking for new investments and new strategies to fight back this social issue”.

The Study of the Secretaria Municipal concluded that more than half of the homeless population in Rio de Janeiro consists of men between 16 and 49 years old and almost 40% come from other cities in the state, mainly to work on garbage dumps.

Besides Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana, several other neighborhoods in Zona Sul are strongly affected by the presence of homeless population on the streets. The problem is especially visible in Catete, Glória and Lapa and its adjacent areas.

The homeless survive by selling items found usually in garbage deposits (old raged dolls, music tapes, rusty kitchen utensils, etc.), some consume drugs, make public restrooms of the sidewalk and create barriers for foot traffic. The truth is if half of them have nowhere to go at night the problem will never be resolved.

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