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Eduardo Campos LimaFebruary 07, 2022
Father Lancellotti distributes food to homeless people in front of São Paulo’s metropolitan cathedral. Photo: Luciney Martins.Father Lancellotti distributes food to homeless people in front of São Paulo’s metropolitan cathedral. Photo: Luciney Martins.

In Brazil, an ongoing financial crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to a staggering unemployment rate of 13 percent. The converging crises have meant rising poverty and homelessness. In São Paulo, the country’s largest city, an estimated 66,000 people live on the streets, seeking refuge in public spaces—under bridges, in neighborhood squares and on sidewalks.

Because of the ubiquity of smartphones, the Brazilian public has become more aware of the problem of violence by private security and São Paulo police against people who have been economically displaced, and denouncements of those attacks have become common on social media.

Social media has also made another kind of aggression against homeless people more evident: the implantation of spikes and other obstacles in public places that have the intent of repelling homeless people. Many middle-class Brazilians may pass by without even noticing these examples of so-called hostile architecture, or residential or public space that is designed to discourage lingering or resting. (It is worth noting that the phenomenon is not limited to Brazil; it has been observed all over the world.) But one Catholic priest has made it his mission to report every instance of it that he becomes aware of.

Middle-class Brazilians may pass by without even noticing these examples of so-called hostile architecture, or residential or public space that is designed to discourage lingering or resting.

The Rev. Júlio Lancellotti is an experienced human rights advocate and São Paulo’s designated vicar for street people. He has been posting images he finds himself or that are sent to him by supporters of spikes and other elements of hostile architecture gathered from cell-phone photos or video from all over Brazil.

Father Lancellotti’s posts sometimes include graphic videos of aggression against the homeless. On Dec. 20, for example, he posted a clip of a man being beaten up by private guards in a market in Belém, in Pará State, where he had been discovered sleeping.

He labels such incidents with the same word that he uses to categorize the intent of hostile architecture: aporophobia, the rejection or hatred of the poor, a concept first introduced by the Spanish philosopher Adela Cortina.

“Cortina began to use this concept in reference to refugees [from Africa and the Middle East] in Europe, those who so many times had their camps burned down or were left to die on the sea,” he remembered.

Public buildings, shops, restaurants and even churches have been the object of Father Lancellotti’s internet crusade. In Brazil, he charges that hostility to the poor has been institutionalized in municipal planning and design. More than 349,000 people follow Father Lancellotti on Twitter, and he has even more followers on other social media platforms.

On Dec. 13, Father Lancellotti posted the photo of the metropolitan cathedral of Campinas, a large city near São Paulo. A stairway leading to one of its side entrances had spikes embedded into it, making it impossible for people to sit or rest on the steps. Shortly after that post, a priest representing the cathedral released a video assuring that the spikes were being removed.

Social media has also made another kind of aggression against homeless people more evident: the implantation of spikes and other obstacles in public places that have the intent of repelling homeless people.

The Rev. Caio Augusto de Andrade said the metal spikes had been installed by church members in 1990. He explained that the cathedral administration now plans to remove them, calling their installation a “historical mistake.”

He added, “That fact does not represent in any way our option for the poor and our affection for the homeless, who are well assisted by us,” he added.

In the local newspaper Hora Campinas, Father Andrade admitted that he had been embarrassed by Father Lancellotti’s post but then went on the offensive.

“I do not want to say that he made a mistake, but maybe he was used or misled. Maybe because he is kind of old, he did not have much discernment or he was manipulated or misled,” Father Andrade told the paper.

“But I believe in Father Júlio. I like him. I greatly admire him. He has always inspired me in the option for the poor,” he concluded.

Father Lancellotti, 72, is accustomed to that kind of reaction.

The Rev. Júlio Lancellotti is São Paulo’s designated vicar for street people. He has been posting images of spikes and other elements of hostile architecture gathered from cell-phone photos or video from all over Brazil.

“When we make those denouncements, we face hostile reactions, at times even from people connected to the church,” he told America.

He has had far more serious reactions over the years to worry about than the belittling comments of Father Andrade. Father Lancellotti has for years endured anonymous threats from members of Brazil’s far right, angered by his consistent defense of homeless people.

In 2019 those threats were serious enough to prompt a review by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which demanded that the Brazilian government guarantee that it would take measures to protect the priest’s life. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, those recommended security measures have not been taken and the threats continue, but Father Lancellotti has continued his campaign for the homeless on the streets of São Paulo.

“Once he told me that the more his struggle advances, the more he is attacked,” said Fernando Altemeyer Jr., a religious studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. For more than three decades, according to Mr. Altemeyer, Father Lancellotti has continued his efforts for the poor, pressuring Brazil’s mayors to make public spaces more amenable for all Brazilians, regardless of their residency status.

Politicians “usually hate him,” Mr. Altemeyer said, “because they do not understand that Júlio’s point of view is the point of view of the destitute—and you need to take a few steps downstairs if you want to grasp its meaning.”

Mr. Altemeyer believes that four centuries of slavery in Brazil helped normalize violence against the poor. It has made Brazilians “morally blind to the whip, to misery, to torture.”

Father Lancellotti: “They punish the poor people instead of trying to transform their reality. If the state’s social assistance worked appropriately, people would not be begging for money and living on the street.”

According to the architect Nabil Bonduki, a professor at the University of São Paulo and formerly a member of the city council, the use of devices to keep homeless people on the move has been common for decades.

“Now, things are even worse,” he said. “Many architectural components which used to be part of modern buildings, such as a marquee, are not included in new projects because the homeless tend to look for shelter under them.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the homeless population in Brazil has grown to include working-class people who had never been homeless before.

“Many workers who used to pay rent ceased to do so in the crisis and are now homeless,” Mr. Bonduki said. “The city government should have worked to offer alternatives to them.”

The social and financial deterioration in Brazil is an obstacle for the reintegration of the newly homeless in the formal economy. And now they cannot even beg on the streets for help. All across Brazil, state and civic organizations have been urging Brazilians to cease giving money to the homeless.

Father Lancellotti remains optimistic that a humane response to its homelessness crisis could be transformative for Brazil.

Father Lancellotti’s social media accounts include examples of such “public service” campaigns. In an advertisement he recently deplored, a blond, blue-eyed woman faces the camera and says: “You, who give a handout in Copacabana! You harm everybody in the neighborhood. You harm the residents. You harm the elderly people. And above all you harm the businesses in Copacabana, which struggle to give a job to the people who want to work. You harm everybody!”

Father Lancellotti argues such campaigns are a way of “criminalizing the poor.”

“They punish the poor people instead of trying to transform their reality. If the state’s social assistance worked appropriately, people would not be begging for money and living on the street. That is aporophobia,” he said.

According to Father Lancellotti, the ascension of Brazil’s far right in recent years has intensified the centuries-old animosity toward the poor. “The far right has found a rather fertile soil,” he said.

In the end, Father Lancellotti remains optimistic that a humane response to its homelessness crisis could be transformative for Brazil. His efforts have clearly raised awareness of the problem among some segments of Brazilian society. Legislation has even been introduced in the Brazilian Congress and in some states and cities with the aim of forbidding the use of architecture and urban design that is deliberately unwelcoming to people without housing.

“We have to move from hostility to hospitality,” Father Lancellotti urges.

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