Thousands of families evicted in Sao Paulo amid pandemic

The growing number of evictions in Brazil driven by the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening an already serious housing problem in the country

SAO PAULO -- Jussara de Jesus never thought that her family would live in a shack.

They moved to Jardim Julieta, one of Brazil's newest favelas, or shantytowns. With more than 800 shacks of wood and plastic sheeting, there are already several thousand people living in what used to be a parking lot for trucks in one of the poorest areas of the city.

“We didn’t even have the means to build the shack. We came with some plastic sheets,” de Jesus said.

The growing number of evictions driven by Brazil's COVID-19 pandemic is worsening an already serious housing problem in the country. Before the pandemic, local authorities counted more than 200,000 families waiting for adequate housing in Sao Paulo, a city of 12 million.

The human rights and research group LabCidade estimates more than 2,000 families have lost their homes in Sao Paulo state since March, with another 1,000 facing the same risk in upcoming weeks. It is a high figure for a state with 46 million residents, about the same population as Spain.

Raquel Rolnik, a former U.N. special investigator on adequate housing and a coordinator for LabCidade, says similar evictions have happened all over Brazil.

“We will see many more people on the streets soon,” Rolnik told The Associated Press on the phone. “There is no public policy to handle these cases.”

Since the first wave of 35 residents built shacks in Jardim Julieta in mid-March, another 765 families joined and 200 are in line. Most were evicted from their homes during the new coronavirus pandemic, at a time local authorities said they should stay home.

Judges, mayors and, realtors and landlords have often ignored pleads to suspend rent due to the virus, despite requests from prosecutors and human rights groups. Congress passed a bill to address the issue in June, but it was vetoed by President Jair Bolsonaro. Not even moving into a favela assures residents will have shelter for now, since police can still force them out.

Sao Paulo state is the epicenter of pandemic in Brazil, with more than 20,000 fatalities of the country’s 82,000.

Karina Valdo, 38, was cleaning hospitals before she got pregnant with her third son, now eight months old. She and her husband depended on day labor to survive, but still managed to pay their $120 rent. When the virus struck she sold many of her household appliances to keep her one-bedroom house. But that was not enough to convince her landlord to suspend her payments.

“If you don't pay, you go to the streets," she said.

De Jesus, Valdo and their neighbors, who often share meals without any regard for social distancing, are constantly worried about the police. Officers have recently told them they must leave by Aug. 8. Prosecutors and activists are trying to block that move in court.

Many residents of Jardim Julieta were evicted from another favela that was dismantled by police on June 16 after a judge's decision to return the land to its owner. Sao Paulo city hall said it offered shelter to the hundreds of affected families on the east edge of the city.

Nearly 30,000 families get an $80 subsidy from the city Sao Paulo for rent, but experts consider that amount too small. Brazil's far-right administration has cut federal investment in housing programs.

Francisco Comaru, an urban planning professor at university UFABC, said the city of São Bernardo do Campo, outside Sao Paulo, has been one of the most aggressive with evictions. Dozens have been made through administrative decisions, with no judiciary intervention.

“Authorities are doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing now,” Comaru added. “It is as if they didn't understand what we are going through.”

Valdo said she is hoping for a judge's decision to stop the evictions from Jardim Julieta. She said she is more afraid of being thrown out again with her three children than contracting coronavirus.

“For the government, people like us are just dust,"' she said. "We don't exist.”

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