RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The early morning line for food at the Anjinho Feliz community center stretches down the road as the swelling ranks of Brazil’s poor and homeless wait for care packages of rice, cooking oil and biscuits.
The center’s founder, Miriam Gomes, has been working with Brazil’s homeless people for ten years. She has never seen it this bad.
The country’s economic crisis and the high cost of living in big cities are forcing thousands onto the street, she said.
“I’ve seen a 70 percent increase in the number of homeless over the last three years,” said Gomes, as volunteers buzzed around the center distributing food.
“In the past, most homeless were adult males; now there are far more women and kids living on the streets,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About 14,000 people are living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, a city of about 6.5 million, according to data from the municipal government.
That’s a sharp increase over a decade ago in a trend seen across Brazil’s other big cities, according to government data and community workers.
In Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America, the number of people sleeping rough on the streets nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015 to 15,906 people, according to that city’s municipal government.
Homelessness in Brazilian cities is generally defined as people who regularly sleep outside on the streets, rather than just those who lack a permanent address.
Teresa Bergher, an official with the city of Rio de Janeiro, told local media that “the situation of homeless people in Rio is now calamitous”.
She urged Brazil’s federal government to provide support to cash-strapped cities like hers.
National housing initiatives such as Brazil’s multi-billion dollar “My House, My Life” building program which provided a lifeline to some homeless families have been cut amid the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.
“The waiting list for Minha Casa, Minha Vida is huge,” said Gomes. “And the homeless shelters are so awful that people would rather stay on the street.”
Other public services upon which the poor and homeless depend such as healthcare are also under strain, according to government officials and campaigners.
The federal government says getting the economy growing again is the top priority to reduce the ranks of Brazil’s homeless and 12 million unemployed.
Josineia da Costa Batista lost her job in the economic crisis and was forced to turn to the Anjinho Feliz Center for help.
“I used to work in the informal sector washing clothes,” Batista, a mother of three, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“A friend told me about this place so I could get food,” said Batista who now volunteers at the center cooking lunches for other poor and homeless people.
Workers like Batista in Brazil’s large informal sector have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. Unlike Brazilians employed in the formal economy, they receive no benefits when they’re laid off.
Brazil’s President Michel Temer said unemployment is the top issue facing the country and pledged to get the economy growing again this year in an interview with Reuters in January.
Growth will increase tax revenue to finance public spending programs for housing and other services in states like Rio which are teetering on bankruptcy, officials said.
Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Paola Totaro.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org