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Voices of the street: what we can learn from Brazil

January 04 2016
Cover image from Cafe Art's São Paulo calendar Cover image from Cafe Art's São Paulo calendar
Homeless Brazilians make sure their voices matter. UK homeless activists are hoping to adopt the same approach

Homeless people in Brazil are making sure their voices matter. Now UK homeless activists are hoping to bring the same approach to the UK, finds Karin Goodwin

Say ‘Brazil’ and you may think of beaches, or football, samba and carnival. But now a group of homeless activists are making the country famous for a very different reason.

The Homeless People’s Movement – which started in São Paulo and Rio and is now spreading across the county and beyond – was set up by and for homeless people by campaigners who wanted to make sure their voices were heard by those in power.

Their campaign first started after a spate of killings of homeless people in 2004 in Sao Paulo’s downtown area, where hundreds of people sleep each night. Seven people were murdered in one week.

Now the movement has inspired campaigners from the UK, who have just completed a fact-finding mission and are hoping to roll out a similar scheme in British cities.

The plans have come out of exchanges organised by One Voice, a partnership designed to give homeless people a voice through the Olympics. It held its first event as part of London 2012 when 300 performers who had experience of homelessness took part in a showcase featuring choirs, rappers, poetry and film.

The With One Voice Brazil project started a year later, with a research visit by Streetwise Opera and People’s Palace Projects into the homeless situation in Rio and São Paulo and the need for local arts projects.

It was found that despite a very different homelessness situation in Brazil – with thousands more people living on the street and no social housing – city councils, homeless centres and people want to develop an event at the Cultural Olympiad in Rio in 2016.

But it was when a Brazilian delegation visited the Booth Centre in Manchester and met homeless activist and former rough sleeper Dave Kelly that things really got interesting.

Kelly, a volunteer for the Booth Centre said: “I was asked to talk about the arts helped me, how playing the guitar gave me a bit of mental space. I talked about how being homeless was more than just not having a roof.

“But when I spoke to them, they told me about the Homeless People’s Movement and that really caught my attention.

“What struck me in São Paulo was that they had strong links with the local council – local officials would take their calls, or answer their emails and take their suggestions on. I think that’s vitally important, so I really wanted to go and find out more, to see what I could learn.”

Kelly was part of a small delegation which also included a Machester councillor that went to Brazil in November last year and is now inspired to see how the Homeless People’s Movement could work in Manchester.

The former chef, who lost his job and ended on the streets after a spiral of depression led his relationship to break down, believes the voices of experience involved are key. “One of the great things they have done, for example, is to improve the relationship with the police for themselves. Now the police are more understanding about what it means to be homeless,” he explained.

The shift has been huge, according to Jan Onoszko, a Brazil-based project manager for With One Voice. Before the movement’s creation in 2010, there was no single government policy to protect homeless people, she explains.

Now in Brazil, people have the right to live on the streets, and the movement claims it was fundamental in making this become law.

The group has helped set up a homelessness committee (Comitê Pop Rua), run by São Paulo council, made up of members of the movement, council officials and non-governmental homeless organisations.

Kelly, who with the help of the Booth Centre has his own flat and has conquered his addiction issues says: “Now I’m feeling more stable and I’m trying to campaign for homeless rights.”

“What we need – and what I think we can learn from Brazil – is that homeless citizens themselves do have a voice and they should be heard. I believe that their voices have been oppressed, ignored and swept under the carpet.

“In Manchester, it’s a tricky situation. People who are sleeping in tents have been criminalised and threatened with up to two years in prison; it’s totally unfair. Homeless people need to have their own voices heard directly.”

Matt Peacock, chief executive of Streetwise Opera, added: “The Homeless People’s Movement is really inspiring and it’s helped get the voices of homeless people – and their needs on the agendas in both Rio and São Paolo.

“We all think that it has a real application in the UK. Homeless people have a genuine right to be sitting around the table.”

He is also hoping that One Voice will host an event for the games.

Back in Manchester, Dave Kelly is thinking big. “This needs to get out there,” he says. “There could be a Homeless People’s Movement in Manchester, in London, and in every major city in the UK.

“But why stop there – I’ve heard it’s spreading across South America so why not Europe?”


One Voice Brazil

Plans for a UK-based Homeless People’s Movement are just part of the picture. Other projects to come from the partnership include:

•  UK visual arts project Café Art, which works with homeless artists, has piloted a project in São Paolo. They’ve launched a 2016 calendar featuring photographs taken by those living on the streets.

•  Growing the scope and number of homeless choirs in Brazil, using the success of the UK-based Choir with No Name as an inspiration.

•  An official event as part of the Rio 2016 Olympics, featuring homeless people from Brazil and around the world.

•  An exchange between Cardboard Citizens and a group of pregnant homeless women in Rio, using forum theatre to discuss the issues they face.