Homeless people were removed from tourist zones, their belongings taken, and some were forced into overcrowded shelters during World Cup in host cities across Brazil, it has been claimed. A number of official complaints have been lodged across the country, with some of the most serious occurring in Salvador, Northeast Brazil. Some reported that families living on the streets in the World Cup city Salvador were taken to remote destinations during the tournament against their will.
A 14-year-old boy called Ricardo who I spoke to confirmed that many of the homeless people he usually sees were missing from the town centre during the month of the World Cup.
“People disappeared, but I don’t know where they went” he said. Ricardo is typical of many boys who are on the streets in Salvador and other coastal towns and cities in Brazil. He came several years ago to the city from a rural village in the interior of the country, on the back of a truck carrying other migrating people and goods. Although he won’t say why, he left his family including a younger brother behind.
His impression was confirmed by an older street dweller, Roberto, 32, who says he refused to leave the centre of Salvador during the World Cup.
“We suffered, police and municipal guards hit us (…)They wanted us to go into shelters during the World Cup so no one would see us. They put us in the car and drove us away (…) We couldn’t walk around freely, because tourists were there. The situation here is bad. There are children of 10, 12, using drugs and stealing to survive, even killing. It is only going to get worse. But we won’t leave, we always come back.”
The charity ABC Trust estimates there are 24,000 children living on the streets in Brazil, and a walk through Salvador or Fortaleza city centres at night is impossible without meeting scores of children and teenagers in gangs or alone. They frequently sleep during the day, when it is safer to do so, and can be seen in doorways on flattened cardboard boxes while workers flit between their offices and nearby restaurants.
In both cities however, civil society is active – frequently in the absence of the state – helping children who live on the streets. In the case of Salvador, the NGO Projeto Axé works with children and young people aged 8-25 using art and education as tools for transformation.
Director Marcos Candido said: “Some police think we are defending thieves, as a lot of the robberies which take place in the city centre are by adolescents, but a lot of police respect what we do and they are aware of our daily presence in the streets. (…)We look after one boy who is in a tough situation. He spends some time with us, then returns to the streets. Just after the World Cup, the police brought him to us as he had been caught stealing from someone
“He told them he was from Projeto Axé, and they left him alone. I think our presence can act as a deterrent to violence against street children. I did not see any discrimination against people living in the streets during the World Cup, although we found cases of child labour.”
While Marcos said the organisation might have preferred that the billions spent on stadiums and World Cup-related costs were used to improve health, education and housing in Brazil, Projeto Axé used the tournament to try and spread awareness of their work.
The group participated in a FIFA video promoting Salvador and showcasing the considerable singing, dancing and other talents of its young people.
“We had the chance to show the world that children, when they have a quality education, can achieve things. When they are cared for, they become productive people,” he said.
According to Lucia Santos Ferreira from the Centro Nacional de Defesa de Direitos Humanos da População em Situação de Rua e Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (CNDDH, or National Centre of the Defence of the Human Rights of the Street Population and Collectors of Recyclable Materials) in Salvador, the worst cases of homeless people being forcibly removed occurred the year before the World Cup, during the Confederations Cup football tournament which was also held in Brazil.
Some people were compulsorily detained in a former mental health unit or sprayed with jets of water and removed from the town centre to unregistered hotels and out-of-town sites, as well as having their possessions taken. Some were dumped in Simões Filho, another city miles away from Salvador city centre, and even taken to a disused psychiatric hospital, CNDHH claimed.
“We complained to the Public Defender, and then in the World Cup, we started to see it happen again,” Lucia said.
Some lessons were learned from the Confederations Cup experience, and Lucia said CNDDH and other organisations working in Salvador were better prepared and able to ameliorate some of the worst effects on the homeless.
“We had a team of people from different organisations [including the municipal authorities] working nightshifts, and the authorities closed the psychiatric hospital,” she said.
“Some people were still moved on. (…) It doesn’t make me sad, it makes me angry. The way they wanted to show Brazil is not how it really is.
“In some ways, the situation is better for children on the streets, as they have the conselho tutelars (child protection agencies) and groups like Projeto Axé. (…) Adults don’t have the same support structure.”
There are 18 official complaints going through ação civil pública Salvador (civil actions) about human rights violations of homeless people during the World Cup, with six of those by social groups working with homeless, according to the Brazilian investigative journalism organisation Agencia Publica.
The cleaning company responsible for Salvador town centre, Limpurb, told Agencia Publica they only sprayed jets of water on the streets after the homeless people had already left and their cardboard boxes had been removed.
Official complaints have been made in other host cities, including Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, where groups working with the homeless complained shelters were overcrowded. In Fortaleza, the effects of a heavy police and municipal guard presence may have been enough on its own to encourage homeless people to avoid the city centre.
Outreach worker Valdecio Batista of O Pequeno Nazareno, an NGO working with street children there, said: “There was an increased police presence during the World Cup, so some street children were intimidated and went to the peripheries of the city.”
Areas of the city centre close to the ocean where street children and homeless families once gathered were eerily empty during the World Cup.
Many of the thousands of tourists who visited would have been unaware that there is a usually a large street population, including children, at all.