A roof for the roofless
Sao Paulo, Brazil
By Nacho Doce
It was close to midnight on Sunday night, the hour at which 1,200 families planned to occupy 11 vacant buildings in downtown Sao Paulo. Their mission was to improve their own living conditions by occupying and squatting in the buildings long enough to make their eviction a long, drawn-out legal process, and in the meantime, go on with their daily lives.
When I arrived at the meeting place for one of the building occupations, there were around 150 families sitting along a wall with their suitcases. The leaders were registering the names of all present, to keep control over who would enter the empty building. Elsewhere around the city, there were ten more groups like this one, ready to act.
These are members of a well-organized group known as the Movimento dos Sem-Teto, or Roofless Movement. The movement’s members are people who live in precarious housing in high risk areas, mostly in slums known as favelas. Contrary to what the group’s name implies, most of the family heads have jobs. They are largely not homeless but rather in need of stable, dignified housing that allow them to carry on with their lives. Their organized occupations of buildings are almost always in the city center where many of them work, and where they can’t afford to live in decent housing. The lack of a more extensive subway system in a city with more than seven million private cars circulating also makes it difficult to live on the outskirts and commute to work in the center.
With an hour to go before it started, a woman appeared with a serious look. She was Netti, the organizer of the Roofless occupations, and began talking to different people. She told me to stick to Manuelzinho, the leader of the Front Line team – those who carry the sledgehammers and crowbars to break down the front doors of vacant buildings. Among them are also other men whose job is to fend off any police who might arrive before they are all inside the building.
With just 30 minutes to go, the leader of the Front Line briefed the group on how to proceed. I heard the call, “Onward to battle,” and they all marched off in a line. I knew I had to stay in the middle of the group so I wouldn’t miss a step. As we marched to the waiting van, we passed the families who all stared at us. Some had done this before, but others were beginners. Among the crowd I noticed a boy resting his hand on the shoulder of his sleeping sister. The image gave a strong sensation of protection.
We climbed into the van in heavy rain, and in just a few minutes we were at the target. We were on the street in a flash, and everyone knew exactly what to do. The crowbar was in place and the sledgehammer began bashing. Just then a security guard appeared on the inside of the door, and tried to stop them, but the Roofless activists were so concentrated on their mission, and the need to succeed. The door didn’t give way easily, and we could hear police sirens.
That was when Manuelzinho took hold of the sledge and with all his strength, adrenaline and experience, the door ceded just as the police were getting out of their cars. As rehearsed, a group of men blocked the police access to the door.
With some of the families already inside, others appeared from around the corner with their suitcases in a straight line towards the door. Once inside, the families and activists knew that the police couldn’t enter without a court order. This was their strategy.
The rain no longer bothered anyone, although I constantly had to dry my lens with my shirt. I entered the building, climbed the stairs, and squeezed through a partially-open window to stand on a balcony. On the street below was the leader Netti, calling out from the street with her arms outstretched, looking upward. “Now you have a place to live!”
Manuelzinho, the Front Line leader, went to give the security guard all his personal items that were left in the building, and then turned to me to say, “Gringo, lots of adrenaline.” My nickname had become Gringo, even though I’m from Spain.
Netti spoke to the other groups by cell phone, and found out that all 11 occupations were a success. Her face lit up in joy, and she said to me, “Gringo, do you want to come with us to see the other occupied buildings?” I realized by the gender of the pronoun “us” in Portuguese, that she was talking about the Roofless leaders as being practically all women.
We climbed into a van and as we cruised from one building to the next, I realized that the 1,500 families had carried out their occupation of all 11 buildings within a 12-block radius. I did find one male leader in one of the buildings, but I think he was the only one.
In front of one building I watched people entering and leaving by an opening torn in a metal storefront. One woman appeared through a hole with a thermos filled with coffee. It was 6am and I asked where they were going, and they said, to their jobs. The leaders were making their rounds to make sure everything was alright with the families. There was always someone in the main entrance to stop strangers to the Movement from entering.
One leader took me to get drinking water for the children. I found it all so incredible that we were seeing 11 buildings where the leaders were setting schemes on how to organize the cleaning operation, control who entered and left, the requests for fruit and vegetable donations from the main market, and the designation of common spaces and offices among the apartments. That same morning journalists arrived, but were allowed in only when the respective leader was present. The organization was rigid.
During the next days I returned several times to different occupied buildings, where some of the families were already improving their apartments with plywood divisions. They had brought in all their belongings, mattresses, stoves, etc.
One person told me that they had assembled a favela inside the building, but this one had a real roof.
(My deepest thanks go to colleague Anderson Barbosa, and Roofless leaders Osmar, Netti, Carmen, Maria de Planalto, Laura and Juliana, and all the families who let me take their portraits.)