SAO PAULO – Djalma Salles is 24 years old. An orphan and native of the impoverished northeastern state of Bahia, he moved to Sao Paulo in 2011 in search of work but soon found himself living on the street in Brazil’s wealthiest city.
Salles is one of an estimated 24,000 homeless people in South America’s largest metropolitan area, where the number of individuals without a place to call their own has increased by more than half over the past five years.
At the age of 13, he was already working at a construction site in his home city, Ilheus, where he earned about $3.50 a day and lived in a shack with a girlfriend 10 years his senior. Facing a lack of job prospects, he decided to leave that life behind and pursue a better future but ran headlong into an even harsher reality.
“When you’re on the street, you’re hungry, thirsty, cold. You get sick all the time because you live out in the rain. You feel ashamed, humiliated, because if you want a plate of food you have to ask someone for it,” he said in an interview with EFE.
According to the most recent census conducted by the Sao Paulo mayor’s office, 24,344 people are homeless in that megalopolis of 12 million inhabitants, up 53 percent from the previous census in 2015.
Of those roughly 24,000 people, 11,600 shuttle from one shelter to another, while the rest – more than half of the total – literally are forced to sleep out on the street.
Several non-governmental organizations, however, say the real number of homeless people may be much higher, since the mayor’s office’s study does not consider makeshift shacks erected on the street to constitute an absence of housing.
Salles managed to get off the street last October, moving into a shelter – Arsenal da Esperança – that provides housing for 1,150 men for an average period of five months. Men are disproportionately affected by the rise in homelessness in Sao Paulo, accounting for 85 percent of that population city-wide.
He occupies bed No. 44 in a room where 150 people sleep. During the day, he takes a technical course in civil construction with a view to eventually starting his own business and “landing several jobs.”
“I hope this is my last time in here because I hope to become part of society again and not go back on the street,” he said.
Also yearning for a better future is his 33-year-old classmate, Paulo Albuquerque, who used to be a night watchman in Vitoria da Conquista, a city in Bahia state located around 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from Sao Paulo.
“They fired me, so I came to Sao Paulo to work construction at the Temple of Solomon church. But then I didn’t find other jobs, and I’ve been moving from shelter to shelter since then,” he said.
“Life was good” in his home city, according to Albuquerque, who said he had “a job, was renting a house and was able to pay all of his bills.”
“But everything fell apart when I lost my job. And if you don’t have a job, things start going downhill,” he lamented.
In his first few months in Sao Paulo, Albuquerque scoured the streets of the city in search of a place to sleep at night, since he couldn’t afford rent and had no fixed place at a public shelter.
“It’s pandemonium. Everyone wants a place. When you finally get one, even for one night, you feel relieved because you know you can have a shower, you’ll have something to eat. But the next day it all starts again,” he said.
Father Simone, the director of the Arsenal da Esperança shelter – located in Mooca, a traditional immigrant district where 19 percent of Sao Paulo’s homeless population lives – said there are a number of factors that can lead a person to a life on the streets.
Lack of employment, especially among Brazil’s internal migrants, is the primary one, but the priest also highlighted family problems and drug and alcohol addiction.
“There’s a lot of societal indifference. And many don’t know how to react to this indifference and take refuge in extreme situations,” he says.