Housing activists marched up the empty highway arm-in-arm last month, heading to the São Paulo state governor’s palace to demand an end to the forced evictions that have risen sharply across Brazil during the pandemic.
Military police in riot gear fired shots of rubber bullets and blocked the road ahead. Within minutes, the police pushed everyone back with tear gas, leaving many sprawled on the ground, gasping for breath.
“We are marching to denounce the evictions that Governor João Doria has been pushing,” said Jussara Basso, the São Paulo coordinator of the movement, in a video from the march. “While he appears in the press telling people to stay home, not one housing policy has been created and not one home has been built.”
“It’s a very sad moment in our history,” she told The World.
Despite the pandemic — and rising unemployment — the number of forced evictions in Brazil has roughly doubled in recent months. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, more than 1,700 families have been thrown out of their homes just in the state of São Paulo, according to the Observatory of Forced Removals at the ABC Federal University. That number rises each week, with thousands more at risk of being forcibly removed.
“To be evicted at this moment is a question of life or death. To have a home is a question of life or death. It’s not just the federal government, the mayors and local governments should be protecting people.”
“To be evicted at this moment is a question of life or death,” said Dito Barbosa, a housing and human rights lawyer and one of the lead organizers. “To have a home is a question of life or death. It’s not just the federal government, the mayors and local governments should be protecting people.”
The United Nations has also weighed in, twice calling on Brazilian authorities to suspend forced removals during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Forced evictions should not be happening at all,” Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, told The World. “They are a grave violation of international human rights law and a serious affront to human dignity and development. I am also concerned about the impact of the evictions on the spread of the virus, which is already very widespread.”
Rajagopal said many countries were unfortunately continuing evictions, despite the pandemic, but Brazil was “one of the most serious in the world in terms of intensity.”
Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a huge income concentration in the top 1% of the population. Even before the pandemic, poverty was on the rise for several years. There is a national housing deficit of 7.8 million homes. That means that millions of families cannot afford basic rent, and they’re forced to live in precarious housing — in favelas or slums — often without sanitation or even running water. And their numbers are increasing during the pandemic.
Brazil’s economy is expected to tank by more than 9% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is at 13% and climbing. According to a May poll, 80% of Brazilians said they had been financially impacted by the crisis.
There is movement on legislation in the National Congress to suspend evictions during the pandemic.
“This bill can move pretty fast, it just depends on political will,” said Natália Bonavides, a member of Congress from the Workers Party, who is sponsoring the bill. “The challenge is that we don’t have consensus on this issue because a large number of congressional members represent the financial elites. That’s why external pressure is going to be so important.”
“Only with a lot of popular pressure are we going to be able to approve this project,” she said.
But even if it passes, it will likely still face a veto from President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly downplayed the virus and insisted on the need to reopen the economy. In June, he vetoed the section of another bill that would have suspended evictions of families unable to pay rent during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the numbers in the COVID-19 crisis continue to go up — the country hit 3 million infections and 100,000 deaths last weekend. The number of evictions is also rising with no clear path ahead.
“The problem is going to get worse with the pandemic. What is being asked is the bare minimum. Proceeding with evictions during the pandemic is a violation of the right to life.”
“The problem is going to get worse with the pandemic. What is being asked is the bare minimum,” said Brazilian-born University of Michigan Urban Planning professor Ana Paula Pimentel Walker. “Proceeding with evictions during the pandemic is a violation of the right to life.”
Erika Cavalcante da Silva, 36, lives with her husband and four kids in a 9-by-12 wooden shack they built themselves over the last year. It’s in a community called Faith in God, on the outskirts of the city of Riberao Preto in São Paulo.
In mid-April, she watched as backhoes tore down 20 of her neighbors’ homes. Authorities ordered the demolition. She said that with the interference of heavy rain and the help of local organizers, they were able to stop it. Since then, the neighborhood has grown, but the police are constantly threatening to return.
In the meantime, because of the COVID-19 crisis, Silva says she lost most of her housekeeping work. Her husband, who has lung problems, had to quit his job driving for Uber. The monthly government support they’ve been receiving amid the pandemic runs out this month. She says she doesn’t know what they’ll do.
“I am scared,” Silva said. “I’m scared to death that my daughter, who’s pregnant, will catch coronavirus. City officials think that only criminals live in the favela, but we are families here.”
Housing advocates blame a confluence of recent events for the spike in evictions — including the push to tamp down on new favelas and urban and rural “housing occupations,” or squatter settlements like Silva’s, which have grown during the financial crisis. With rising unemployment, many working-class families who are unable to pay their rent have ended up on the streets, moved in with relatives or joined new favelas and growing occupations on the city’s outskirts of the city.
Other factors driving up evictions may have to do with private real estate interests, and the government’s inclination to act on evictions during the pandemic — when housing activists are less vocal, activists say.
“Some authorities are taking advantage of the situation. The São Paulo mayor’s office is requesting legal measures to fast-track the removal of 400 families in Campos de Eliseos, in the middle of the pandemic. This also happened in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The government [is] requesting that an eviction be carried out with urgency.”
“Some authorities are taking advantage of the situation,” said researcher Talita Anzei Gonsales, at the Observatory of Forced Removals. “The São Paulo mayor’s office is requesting legal measures to fast-track the removal of 400 families in Campos de Eliseos, in the middle of the pandemic. This also happened in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The government [is] requesting that an eviction be carried out with urgency.”
These evictions are often violent. During a forced removal in Piracicaba, São Paulo, on May 7, police fired rubber bullets toward a cluster of makeshift homes, a YouTube video shows. Reporter Maria Teresa Cruz, with the Brazilian outlet Ponte Jornalismo, described the scene that day in a video from a nearby roof. She had to stop as clouds of tear gas wafted over the area and into nearby neighborhoods.
“There was no aggression from the residents being removed. I can say that because I witnessed it first hand. The reaction of the police was disproportionate,” Cruz told The World. “They fired a lot of tear gas grenades and many rubber bullets even into the favela alongside the occupation ... People who were home were suffocated by the gas that came in through the windows of their shacks. This forced them outside and into the line of fire.”
This sort of thing is happening daily around the country.
“They hit a boy who was only 2 years old,” said a man wearing a green mask in an Aug. 6 video of an eviction of families in Jabaquara, in the city of São Paulo.
“They shot a tear gas grenade at us over there. Fired rubber bullets. We are just here to demand our rights.”