Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Urban Occupations

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Urban Occupations

Article excerpt

Brazilian housing activists seize abandoned buildings for poor

hey, let's go to the party!" The word went out. The result: Six thousand families active in the housing movement here assembled at designated sites in the city. At midnight Oct. 24, 1999, they moved quietly to six targets, vacant buildings selected for their political impact and their ability to provide desperately needed homes.

As a thousand families entered the ninestory BANESPA building, formerly occupied by the state's banking system, shouts of "Occupy! Resist! Construct!" echoed through the marbled interior.

"If there are no solutions, there will be occupations," activists chanted. The six occupations that night were the outcome of a strategy adopted two years earlier by a human rights movement in Brazil.

In the bustling state of Sao Paulo, where private helicopters, the new growth industry, protect the wealthy from rush-hour traffic, car-jackings and kidnappings, most residents simply struggle to get a roof over their heads. For at least two decades, the church, unions and human rights organizations, frustrated with the pace of government support, have engaged in occupations as a way of calling attention to the housing problem. One study, by an independent think tank, FIPE, found 630,000 residents in central Sao Paulo living in cortizos, defined by the study as rooms housing more than five people. In 1997, the housing movement developed a strategy of seizing selected vacant buildings in the central section of the city of Sao Paulo.

Seventeen such urban occupations are continuing.

In January, I visited three of the occupied sites with Evaniza Rodrigues, an activist with roots in Brazil's Catholic base communities.

Perhaps the most significant of the three sites was the BANESPA building. It had been abandoned more than seven years ago following a corruption scandal. …

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