Rio's homeless fear violence and 'little showers' amid 'sidewalk gentrification'

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Sleeping on the streets of Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana neighbourhood for one year after being fired, Samuel Rodrigues Silva suddenly woke up one night as he was being soaked with water.

RIO DE JANEIRO (REUTERS) - Sleeping on the streets of Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana neighbourhood for a year after being fired, Samuel Rodrigues Silva suddenly woke up one night as he was being soaked with water.

When he looked up, he saw water spurting from a white tube with holes over a dozen of homeless people sleeping alongside him under a marquee of a residential building with a movie theatre on the ground floor.

"I felt sad, angry and even wanted to destroy everything. We are also humans, not dogs," Silva, 24, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We are in this situation not because we want to."

The tube, known as "little shower", was installed in August by the privately-owned condominium to water a garden to be built under the marquee.

Activists and prosecutors said such measures are a deliberate attempt to drive away rough sleepers, seen by residents as spoiling the image of the wealthy neighbourhood, home of Rio's famed Copacabana beach.

Homelessness has surged in Rio and other Brazilian cities as the country grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades and rising unemployment rates.

More than 14,000 people were homeless in Rio in 2016, up from 5,500 in 2013, according to figures from Rio's city hall.

Not on our sidewalk

Residents in wealthy and tourist areas of Rio like Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon have urged the authorities to take action to remove homeless people.

This "gentrification of sidewalks" is gathering pace, according to prosecutors and charities.

"The situation has worsened, especially in Rio's southern zone. People are annoyed, they do not want to see homeless people around them," lawyer Leonardo Gialluisi da Silva Sá said.

Outraged residents have taken to social media to call for action.

"I thought of a campaign: Copacabana, stop feeding the streets. Only then it will be empty," one resident posted in a Copacabana Facebook group last month.

In September, another group launched a similar campaign in Ipanema to discourage giving alms to homeless people.

"They were not born here. They come because there is something good. This good thing is people who give alms and food (to them)," the post said.

Sá, a volunteer for Ruas, a charity that works with homeless people and residents, said only an estimated 15 per cent of rough sleepers are beggars.

"There is a lot of prejudice and even ignorance. People link violence to homeless people, but most of them are not violent...," said Sá.

The "little shower" outside the Copacabana movie theatre has been removed after the Public Prosecutor's Office of the state of Rio de Janeiro was notified.

But homeless people like Sergio Pereira da Silva, who used to sleep on cardboard under the marquee, are traumatised. It was the worst situation he experienced in three years living on the streets, he said.

"I felt hatred in my heart," Silva, 23, said.

Shot while asleep

Others suffered a much worse fate than being soaked with water.

A homeless woman was shot dead in October while sleeping under a marquee outside a building in Copacabana, police said in a statement.

Video footage from the area's surveillance system shows two men smiling as they killed the woman, sparking fears about a campaign to "cleanse" the neighbourhood of homeless people, according to local media reports.

Two men have been arrested in connection with the murder, police said.

Public prosecutor Carla Beatriz Nunes Maia said violence against homeless people was common in Rio, including by city government officials and the police.

"There are a lot of violations and irregularities going on. I receive complaints every week," Maia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Maia said city officials frequently collected and removed homeless people's belongings to drive them away.

Erika Augusto, who has been living on the streets of Rio's downtown for 17 years, said city officials also come at night to remove rough sleepers from the sidewalks.

"Government officials come at night to take our cardboard. They broke my friend's arm and threatened me many times," she said.

Augusto, 37, a leader in the national movement for homeless people, said she had never been involved with any wrongdoing, like theft or drug dealing.

"They just want to beat us and expel us from the sidewalks." she said.

No place to call home

In a statement, the city police said its procedures complied with the law, any complaints would be investigated and anyone found guilty of mistreating the homeless would be punished.

The city's departments in charge of public order, social assistance and human rights said there were no records of complaints related to violence or aggressive behaviour by its officials this year.

The state's military police did not respond to requests for comment.

Pedro Fernandes, Rio's secretary for social assistance and human rights, said feeding homeless people was undoubtedly a stimulus for them to remain on the streets.

"Many homeless people refuse to go to publicly-run shelters, claiming that there they need to meet a schedule to take a shower, watch television and eat, while on the streets they receive food whenever," Fernandes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fernandes said many shelters were in a poor state but that the city was taking action to improve them, such as providing hot water and fumigating infested premises.

Many homeless people also refuse to move to shelters because they are located far from downtown, said Fernandes.

On Wednesday, the city will inaugurate a public shelter close to Rio's central train station, along with a training program to help homeless people to find jobs.

Raquel Ludermir, advocacy consultant for charity Habitat for Humanity, said the rise in homelessness in Rio was a result of rapid urbanisation and the inequalities it had created.

She called for public policies to address whether urban development should aim at gentrification or helping the growing numbers of people forced to live on the street.

"Instead of being expelled, these people need attention," said Ludermir.

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