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Urban occupations

Special to National Catholic Reporter
São Paulo, Brazil

Hey, let’s go to the party!” The word went out. The result: Six thousand families active in the housing movement here assembled at designated sites in the city. At midnight Oct. 24, 1999, they moved quietly to six targets, vacant buildings selected for their political impact and their ability to provide desperately needed homes.

As a thousand families entered the nine-story BANESPA building, formerly occupied by the state’s banking system, shouts of “Occupy! Resist! Construct!” echoed through the marbled interior.

“If there are no solutions, there will be occupations,” activists chanted. The six occupations that night were the outcome of a strategy adopted two years earlier by a human rights movement in Brazil.

In the bustling state of São Paulo, where private helicopters, the new growth industry, protect the wealthy from rush-hour traffic, car-jackings and kidnappings, most residents simply struggle to get a roof over their heads. For at least two decades, the church, unions and human rights organizations, frustrated with the pace of government support, have engaged in occupations as a way of calling attention to the housing problem. One study, by an independent think tank, FIPE, found 630,000 residents in central São Paulo living in cortizos, defined by the study as rooms housing more than five people. In 1997, the housing movement developed a strategy of seizing selected vacant buildings in the central section of the city of São Paulo.

Seventeen such urban occupations are continuing.

In January, I visited three of the occupied sites with Evaniza Rodrigues, an activist with roots in Brazil’s Catholic base communities.

Perhaps the most significant of the three sites was the BANESPA building. It had been abandoned more than seven years ago following a corruption scandal. Like other buildings, the former bank building was chosen both for its housing possibilities and for the publicity it might draw. Although the outcome of this occupation remained uncertain at the time of our January visit, some 95 families were calling the building home. Dangerous wiring was being repaired. Walls of prefabricated blocks were replacing blankets, and plastic sheeting hung from ropes to divide spaces.

A less hopeful site was Santos duMont, former home of the man who invented aviation in Brazil around the time the Wright brothers were making their first flights from Kitty Hawk, N.C. DuMont’s mansion long ago fell into disrepair. Ornate moldings have deteriorated. Gaping holes pock ceilings. Planks and railings are missing from stairways. Still, though the building is unfit for habitation by most standards, it represented a step up for 87 families. Residents had made a budgetary and technical proposal to the state, which holds title to the property.

A successful conclusion for Santos duMont may well hinge on elections next month, with their implications for a scandal-torn ministry of housing in Brazil.

The last site I visited was São João, a formerly long-vacant apartment building. It has been purchased by a residents’ association. A contractor has been hired, and the renovations are expected to be completed next year.

In each occupation, rules and organization are determined democratically. Teams are set up to handle security, trash, cleaning, child-care, repairs and governance. Although the road ahead is long, the people spoke of having a new spirit in their lives. It is a spirit that springs from a new understanding of themselves as persons with basic rights, a spirit that gives them confidence to demand that their housing needs be met.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000