For Brazil's homeless, many risks, and now also the coronavirus

by Reuters
Wednesday, 8 April 2020 14:00 GMT

A man wearing a plastic bag to protect his face reads as he sells cigarettes near a queue to buy a meal for R$ 1 (0,19 U.S. dollars) at one of the few popular-priced restaurants after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 27, 2020. Picture taken March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

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As Sao Paulo has shut down due to COVID-19, organizations that would normally help the city's 24,000 homeless residents have also been forced to vanish

By Gabriel Araujo and Leonardo Benassatto

SAO PAULO, April 8 (Reuters) - Despite the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil, Luiz Renato Ribeiro Júnior, who is homeless, still tries to sell candy every day in Sao Paulo, Latin America's largest city. But lockdown policies put in place last month have made it harder for him to earn money.

"If I just stay in one place, I will have no income," he said. "I have to hustle and try to sell my product."

His plight is shared by many of the city's 24,000 homeless residents, the official tally according to the census.

But the risks are higher in Sao Paulo, the center of Brazil's coronavirus outbreak, which had 371 deaths and 5,682 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

As the city has shut down, organizations that would normally have catered to the poor have also been forced to vanish.

Instead, the city government has created six shelters for the homeless, including one specifically for those who are ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The state has expanded a subsidy program for feeding the poor to include dinner, along with lunch and breakfast currently offered, selling more than 100,000 meals per day at below 1 real ($0.1914) per meal.

"The total investment was of 18 million reais to help the people who need it the most, who live on the streets, who are unemployed or have minimal income," said Sao Paulo state governor, Joao Doria.

Doctors Without Borders has recently given medical assistance to almost 280 homeless residents, 37 of whom have shown symptoms of the disease.

Still, Sao Paulo's homeless face significant risks from their lack of access to proper hygiene.

"Where are they going to wash their hands?" asked Julio Lancellotti, a Catholic priest who has worked with the homeless for three decades. He is urging authorities to distribute already-scarce alcohol gel for hand sanitation to the city's homeless.

The city, which has a population of over 12 million people, says it has created seven stations where people can shower and wash.

"They already face serious risks: hunger, the cold, abandonment, contempt," Lancellotti said. "So this (virus) is just one more threat to their lives."

($1 = 5.2247 reais)

(Additional reporting by Amanda Perobelli; Editing by Bernadette Baum)