Wed, Jan 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Brazil's roofless reclaim the nation's cities

Support is growing for an urban coalition that takes over disused buildings to provide shelter for the homeless and poor

By Tom Phillips  /  THE GUARDIAN , SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Every day at 4am, 18-year-old Julienne Cunha wakes to fetch water for her family. She climbs from her bed in the poky, plywood shack she shares with six relatives and collects her bucket.

In the remote northern fishing village of Alcantara where she was born, it would be nothing out of the ordinary. But these days, Julienne lives on the 20th floor of a tower block in one of the wealthiest districts of Sao Paulo, the world's third-largest city.

A resident of Prestes Maia, a colossal abandoned clothes factory that towers over central Sao Paulo, Julienne is one of the youngest members of Brazil's sem-teto or "roofless" movement -- an urban coalition growing in cities across the country. Water doesn't reach Cunha's part of Prestes Maia, so every day she treks down its spiralling staircase to collect it for relatives including her brother, sister and two son.

The roofless movement is the urban equivalent to Brazil's Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST) or Landless Movement, which has spearheaded the campaign for land reform since the 1980s. The MST defends Brazil's impoverished rural workers and reclaims unproductive land for the dispossessed. The Movimento de Sem-Teto do Centro (MSTC) on the other hand, reclaims buildings for the urban homeless and for low-income workers, many of whom work in the informal economy.

Eight years after its foundation, the MSTC is part of an ever growing coalition fighting for the rights of Brazil's urban poor, under the umbrella of the Frente de Luta por Moradia or Pro-housing Front.

Improvised shacks

Prestes Maia, Sao Paulo's biggest occupation with 22 stores in total, is home to 468 families; around 3,000 people from all over South America cram into improvised shacks constructed in what was once office space.

Walking through Prestes Maia is like taking a road trip through Brazil. On every floor a different accent hangs in the air; the exaggerated vowels of the baianos, who swapped Salvador's favelas for the bustle of Sao Paulo; the staccato consonants of the pernambucanos who fled the arid backlands of Brazil's northeast in search of work; and, on the sixth floor the portunhol of Bolivian immigrants who flick between Spanish and Portuguese as they describe their fight for survival in the occupation.

"There are lots of people here with different cultures, different ways of life," explains 49-year-old Jomarina Abreu Pires da Fonseca, an MSTC coordinator, at her home on the 11th floor of Prestes Maia.

"Someone has to try to keep order," she adds, grinning.

At first glance Prestes Maia, which sem-teto members occupied in 2002, resembles a chaotic, multi-storey shantytown; cardboard spews out of its cracked windows, graffiti litter its walls and children rattle through its wide corridors on bicycles. But the community is meticulously organised. Residents contribute 20 real (US$8.87) a month to the upkeep of the building, and a rota system exists for cleaning each floor's communal bathroom.

Fonseca holds weekly meetings at which representatives from each floor discuss house rules, new arrivals and future occupations.

Sao Paulo, like many of Brazil's large urban centers, is a city crying out for housing reform. According to the UN it has 39,289 abandoned buildings. At the same time, says the Sao Paulo-based Social Network of Justice and Human Rights, there are an estimated 15,000 homeless people here with many thousands more unable to afford decent housing outside the city's favelas, where around 2 million are thought to live.

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