The Homeless in Bahia: The Utopia of “Good Living”

Millions of Brazilians have serious housing problems. The Movimiento Sin Techo (Homeless Movement) seeks to organize them, and to occupy abandoned properties and land on the outskirts of the city to pressure the government. When they get settled, even temporarily, they try to transform social relations based on their dreams of a different world.

In a clear spot in the Quilombo de Escada, one of three camps that we visited on a sunny and humid evening in Salvador, Pedro Cardoso handed out beers while explaining the history of each occupation. The words slip languidly, cutting through the sticky heat in an area of wooden, cardboard, metal, and plastic shacks, a mix of materials that shows that the settlers had meager means to obtain permanent housing.

Of Bantu origin, the quilombo (brothel) was a sheltered space where slaves ran away from plantations. Almost all of the inhabitants were blacks, although there were Indians and even some whites, perhaps because the quilombos were spaces of freedom and resistance to oppression. The most famous, the Quilombo de Palmares, survived for more than a century (1600-1710) and became an emblem of resistance that Afro-Brazilian social movements claim today.

The Movimiento Sin Techo Bahia camps (MSTB) are almost all on the outskirts of Salvador, 17 in total, and five of them in other municipalities in the state. There are nearly 5,000 families, including the 1,500 that already have permanent housing. To get to Cidade de Plástico, the most emblematic of the settlements with 228 families living in camps, people must travel nearly 20 kilometers from the Pelourinho, the historic center where tourists gather from around the world.

Six Decades and Seven Years

In the 1940s Salvador grew massively when it began to develop as a petrochemical hub. It had only 290,000 inhabitants and was an agro-export state that was industrialized around the 1950s, bringing the population to 420,000. Thirty years later, in 1980, Salvador’s population had increased four-fold, reaching 1.5 million. In 2010 they were already three million. Not surprisingly, then, it was in the 40s when the first occupations began. “In the 80s there were more than 500 occupations,” says Pedro.

Such a demographic shift resulted in a schizophrenic urban pattern. The ocean shore, with its long beaches lined with palm trees and endless rows of buildings, hosts tourists from around the world as well as the middle and upper class of Salvador. On this beautiful coastline resides the white elite, just 15% of the population, segregated from the slaves’ descendants. According to the official data, 55% are black and 26% mestizo. When we leave the center to the avenue Suburbana, the face of the city becomes African and a world of favelas and instability appears. Wealth and poverty, as in many parts of the world, are inseparable from the skin color.

“Those occupations of the 80s became regular neighborhoods today, i.e. the favelas on the outskirts. They were spontaneous and not coordinated, although a movement emerged to defend the favela residents that was short-lived,” says Pedro. According to various accounts, the housing deficit in the 1990s was estimated to be 200,000, but Pedro believes that today “only” 80,000 homes are needed. The MSTB (Homeless Movement) was officially born on July 20, 2003, following the first organized occupation, 12 kilometers from downtown, on the way to the airport.

At that time there was a wave of urban and rural occupations throughout the country. In Salvador, considered the unemployment capital, the election of Lula “favored the emergence of social movements, as it was believed that there would be less police repression.” The land had been occupied on July 2 in an action driven by “mothers and women” that, in a few days, comprised 700 people. After being evicted by the police, they kept vigil in the area and organized numerous assemblies in which the movement was born.

In the following months they were joined by several thousand families, people living under bridges, sleeping on beaches, living with relatives, and those who pay rent that is too costly. Some families occupying empty buildings downtown were included to pressure the municipal and state governments. From the beginning, they had the support of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Salvador Archdiocese and the Center for Studies and Social Action promoted by the Jesuits.

During the first weeks, the most difficult time to consolidate the occupation, they marched to the prefecture to demand the expropriation of the land, water, and other services. One of the most important steps is to build a community: to raise awareness about forming a group, establish rules of conduct, and make decisions in assemblies, which would be key for the camp to overcome difficulties. That is not easy, as it involves creating new relationships and cultural patterns among people that used to decide individually.

In January 2005, when they had done around 50 occupations, the first Congress was convened. They enacted internal rules that, among other things, prohibit the sale of land, domestic violence, and drug trafficking, and create an organizational structure. Among its principles, it states that the members are considered heirs to the traditions of black resistance in the Brazilian Northeast, and they see themselves in the vein of leaders like Zumbí dos Palmares and Zeferina, and in movements like the Quilombos and the “Guerra de Canudos.”

The organizational structure involves the coordination of state, municipal, and local groups, assemblies, and brigades. Ana, who works with women in the movement, highlights that the Bahia’s homeless movements did not begin at the behest of the Sin Tierra movement, like other urban movements, and they are inspired by horizontal relationships; therefore, “the groups are open and the members rotate frequently.” The brigades are groups of families who are responsible for the cleanliness and health of the settlements as well as setting up and coordinating meetings, and these are rotated weekly. “It’s very difficult to make it all work,” confesses Pedro.

The bases are grouped into three broad areas: core, settlement, and communities. The core are groups that are responsible for discussing, registering the homeless in the area, finding properties or vacant lots, organizing the families to occupy the properties, and organizing marches and other street actions. In Salvador the movement has half a dozen core groups that have registered about 36,000 homeless people, which ensures that the movement will keep growing.

The occupations can be land where they camp in barracos (unstable constructions made of plastic and wood) or unoccupied land. They occupy two closed factories, unused government buildings, a sports club, and several private and municipal buildings. On the unoccupied area, a few dozen of families live, but there are hundreds of occupiers. Ultimately, the communities are the conquerors of houses that give rise to new neighborhoods, like in Valeria, where 150 houses were built with the state support and mutual aid.

“Building communities for good living, that’s our goal,” says Pedro, not knowing that the Aymara and Quechua are based on the same principle, though they are called sumak kawsay or sum qamaña (good life or good living). In his desires, two apparently complementary inspirations converge: the tradition of black resistance and liberation theology. Pedro became involved in the resistance to the dictatorship in 1979, in basic church communities, that were gathered opposite the Quilombo, in the vast favela area of Periperi where he has been living for many years. Now he is one of the coordinators of this movement.

Fragile Organization, Heavy Trafficking

About 70% of the MSTB members are women, “the most dynamic sector of the movement,” says Ana, the majority being single mothers. Almost all are unemployed, or trash collectors, newspaper vendors, or cleaners, from the entire range of services that characterizes the informal urban sector. According to Pedro, the average income of the homeless movement is 300 reales per month per family (just over $150) and only 10% receive the family allowance benefit. “It amounts to scraps,” says Ana, because only families with incomes less than 70 reales per person receive 68 reales, which is not as much as two daily bus fares.

“For every 50 families,” explains Pedro, “a brigade is formed of 10 people who are in charge of managing the camp for a week, responsible for ensuring hygiene and cleanliness, coordinating meetings, and resolving minor conflicts. For collective tasks mutiroes (community work) are organized, but in reality we have failed to form brigades in all camps.” The idea was copied from the brigades of the Sin Tierra movement, which inspires all grassroots movements in Brazil as well as in a significant part of Latin America. But urban work is far more complex than rural work.

A few miles more and we came to a hill called Monte Sagrado, on the summit of which the Quilombo do Paraíso operates. It seems like another world. Unlike Cidade de Plástico, where the “barracos” are stacked one on top of the other next to the polluted bay, here the camp stands on a beautiful view that dominates all the bay, the houses have a lot of land, and are separated by 10-20 meter spaces. The only common point is the inevitable football pitch at the middle of the Quilombo, the exclusive territory of young men.

Pedro explains the reasons why all houses are built of bricks, but the camp is more recent. “In the older settlements they don’t build and expect solutions from the government, but here an assembly decided to start building because they are tired of the unfulfilled promises from the government and they are not willing to wait. Here there is good land, although it is farther from the center, and people know that the state builds houses of 32 square meters and here they are building them in their own way, slowly but with more alternatives.”

As in all the camps, water and electricity connections are obtained illegally but tolerated by the companies. At some point we asked about drug trafficking. Pedro and Ana are honest and straightforward. “In every camp there is trafficking. In the lands it is more difficult because the spaces are closed. But when the occupation is open, like in the camps, trafficking is a reality.” Like many Brazilians who work in the favelas and poor neighborhoods, the military police are seen as the main problem, an overly corrupted and cruel force.

They say that trafficking is a problem for the movement, because it encourages violence, police presence, and breaks social networks. “The method we use,” says Pedro, “is to make a pact. We say that if people traffic they will put all of us at risk because the police will enter the camp. But the dealers often have very fluid relationships with the police. The agreement is not to do anything to criminalize the camp, but we have to be careful because they will not hesitate to get rid of you, so we need to avoid violent situations. So far no leader has been killed as has occured in other cities.”

Ana explains that trafficking promotes sexism and violence against women, and recalls the case of a colleague, a camp leader, who had to go to Sao Paulo because she confronted them and nearly got killed. However, the relationship with the community dealers is strange. “With them, the robberies are cut out because they do not want the police to come or other problems that may jeopardize the trafficking; therefore the community suffers less now than before,” concludes Pedro, nearly exhausted.

The Homeless Female Warriors

“The men were besieging me until they learned that I am Pedro’s friend,” Ana states angrily, unable to hide her annoyance. For black and poor women, all oppressions seem like the same thing. To tackle the subject of gender is to go through one of the toughest doors: women, especially female leaders who are confrontational, suffer violently at the hands of dealers, who see them merely as sex objects.

Building organization and awareness about gender is almost a feat in these conditions, in areas that are not ventured into by state officials (and even less by deputies and councilors) or members of NGOs that request funds, and salaries, to help the poor. They are alone to face the armed men, be they from the military police or organized crime, a difference that most of the time is reduced to the uniform they wear.

One of the greatest achievements of the movement is to have created a women’s organization, the Guerreras Sin Techo (Homeless Female Warriors), on March 8, 2005. They did it “to denounce and combat the racism and sexism that exists within the MSTB and society,” because it pained them to discover that the same thing occurred inside the movement as outside. Although women make up 70% of the organization, at the state coordination level there are only a few. Today, with pride, they said that at the managerial level, 60% are women.

In a public document they noted: “We suffer domestic violence, the death of our black children who are killed by the police or the drug war. We suffer the lack of freedom for our daughters who are increasingly victims of sexual violence in the barracos.” In each job and each core group they attempt to create a group of women. “We are inspired by each other, we rely on each other, trying to create a network of solidarity between women,” says Ana.

In Cidade de Plástico the efforts of the homeless have borne fruit through the construction of a communal dining hall where 20 women daily serve over a hundred dishes at two reales each day. “Guerreiras de Zeferina,” says the mural at the entrance of the camp that is hailed for its cleanliness. “The movement has managed to make the role of women visible, whereas they were previously invisible, to the extent that they are now the ones that have taken more positions of responsibility,” Ana says with pride.

In 2008, the movement managed to set up training centers that included gender modules with 40 militants. Perhaps the role of women is one aspect in which the activity of the homeless has the most notable results. It is true that when compared with the landless, where there is a strong pressure for gender equality, there is still a long way to go here. However, they have configured an emancipatory space from which they dispute the hegemony in public life. They are integrated into the collective work of building housing, to the self-management co-ops, to the discussion venues and public spheres of social policy discussion.

Urban Resistance

Six years is little time for any movement. Looking at the camps at Cidade de Plástico and Escada, there is the feeling that social change from the margins is almost impossible because of the traumas that overcrowding, appalling poverty, and deprivation cause. Conversely, if we look at the rows of houses in the community of Valencia, each with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bathroom, and backyard, where the women set up a food cooperative, then hope returns.

Ana, however, goes beyond optimism. Despite her meager income as a teacher, just 600 reales ($300), she devotes most of her free time to the movement. She is responsible for maintaining connections with the urban communities of Brazil, a situation that is growing and that allowed her to found the Urban Resistance Front a couple of years ago, a convergence of 14 movements from a dozen cities. The Front began to be develop in 2006 at a meeting in Sao Paulo, based on four themes: urban reform, right to housing, right to work, and against the criminalization of poverty.

“Every movement maintains its autonomy and operates by consensus, which involves time for discussion, and patience because it is building trust,” says Ana. “The movements that come together in the Front already have a tradition of autonomy and horizontality and we function with great flexibility.” Sin Tierra has been promoting the creation of urban movements for over a decade, but only now do they seem to be organizing themselves.

According to the data provided by Ana, the urban movements are more synthesized with youth culture than with the union and leftist parties. A powerful presence, besides the homeless, is the hip-hop and the black movement, giving it a very different profile from formal and structured movements: “We are very similar in the ways we work, including the fact that there is no struggle for hegemony.” The “alliance” between the homeless and young hip-hop followers was a natural fit, since they live in the favelas, suffer police harassment, and share the same rebellion against poverty and a system that marginalizes them. Homeless people believe that rap and hip-hop stimulate change in values and social, cultural, and community practices.

Ana argues that because Lula’s government did not go forward with the land reform, and the land is being used for agribusinesses (soybean and sugarcane for biofuels), more and more young people come to the cities. At some point, urban movements are likely to displace the rural ones as a reference point for social change. In any case, the homeless and the Urban Resistance Front launched the campaign “My house, my struggle” to denounce the wave of evictions by property speculators because of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program (www.americasprogram.org).