As Brazil rushes to finish preparations ahead of the World Cup, thousands of homeless Brazilians are fighting to make their plight visible. In the eastern outskirts of São Paulo, more than 4,000 families have occupied a private lot near the stadium that will host the opening game of the tournament one month from today.
The encampment, which has been called the “People’s Cup,” was organized by the Homeless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto, or MTST), an advocacy group that has condemned skyrocketing rents in the face of bloated government spending on the World Cup. Just beyond the camp is the gleaming Arena Corinthians, nicknamed Itaquerão after the city district that it inhabits. The $450.5 million stadium, which is still being completed, stands in stark contrast to the poor neighborhoods that sprawl into the distance.
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The MTST orchestrates squatter settlements to address Brazil’s severe housing shortfall, occupying abandoned buildings and unused tracts of land.
“The winners and the losers of the World Cup have already been determined,” the MTST said yesterday in a statement on its website. “We are the losers, the residents of the periphery.”
The occupation at Itaquerão is one of five encampments that the MTST has helped erect around São Paulo in the past year to highlight the dire need for affordable housing among the city’s working class. The largest is a camp in southern São Paulo known as Nova Palestina (New Palestine), which houses approximately 8,000 families.
“The movement estimates that the housing deficit in São Paulo alone totals six million residences,” Luiz Giovanni, an MTST coordinator, told VICE News. “People will keep occupying unused spaces until that changes.”
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Rent has grown exponentially across Brazil in recent years. Since mid-2008, rent on average has risen 97 percent in São Paulo and a whopping 144 percent in Rio de Janeiro.
For many residents of the camp, the failure of wages to keep pace with this increase have compelled many struggling families to join the MTST occupations. Neide da Silva, who has been at the encampment for one week, earns just over $200 a month as a nanny. Before she left her apartment and joined the People’s Cup, she spent three-quarters of her monthly paycheck on rent.
“My eight-year-old is underweight and I can barely pay rent, water, and electricity, let alone food,” da Silva told VICE News. She couldn’t afford to keep her home, so she and her two daughters joined the Itaquerão settlement. “We don’t know if we’ll get a house out of this or not, but at this point we had to take that risk.”
The MTST has asked the city of São Paulo to purchase the unused land from the owner, Viver Developments, and turn it into low-income housing that squatters would be able to purchase from the state. It appears that Mayor Fernando Haddad and President Dilma Rousseff, both members of the Workers Party who are unwilling to risk a major political blunder during the World Cup, are willing to negotiate with the movement. Rousseff is running for reelection in October.
When a court issued an eviction notice to squatters on Wednesday, the MTST held protests throughout the city the following day and staged an occupation of the offices of Odebrecht, the company constructing the stadium. Rousseff organized an emergency meeting with movement leaders at the stadium. That night, they announced that MTST was granted a court appeal that would allow the squatters to remain on the land until May 23.
“We are in dialogue with the movement and with the owner of the property,” Haddad said in a statement. “We don’t doubt that this will be a great opening game.”
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On Sunday, as the sun was setting over the Itaquerão stadium in the distance, thousands of homeless Brazilians settled into their tents. Luciano Antonio de Nascimento, an MTST coordinator running the camp, juggled phone calls from the press as a family of five slowly approached him. Although the MTST announced on Saturday that it would halt expansion of the settlement, the family wanted to move in.
“Head to the back,” he told them quickly, pointing toward a heavily forested region. “Clean yourself off a spot, stake it off clearly, and put your name on your tent once you have it up. At 7 PM, we’ll do roll call.”
Visibly relieved, the father of the family seized de Nascimento’s hand. “Thank you so much,” he said, sending his children to retrieve their belongings. “Really, thank you.”
“Once people arrive here, they become part of the family,” de Nascimento told VICE News. “I imagine the camp will reach 5,500 families or so before we have to close the doors.”
Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva