Solidarity as a way of life


Ivanete is someone who could have chosen to live in her own home, but she lives with others, in solidarity. Their dream for better housing is her dream as well. Ivanete de Araujo once lived under a bridge in Sao Paulo – one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Today she works for Apoio, an organisation offering people alternatives to life on the street or in crumbling, rat-infested buildings.

Ivanete is a woman who knows all about being a good neighbour – seeing as she shares her home with 120 other families in an abandoned hotel at the heart of Sao Paulo. Along with her two teenage daughters and son, Ivanete loves the sense of community which comes from sharing the building – which had stood empty for 17 years before they came along. She could have her own home, but says: “It wouldn’t be fair if I went home, closed the door and thought everything was sorted for me. It is no good sitting in my own home worrying without being here with the others and feeling what they are feeling.”

As part of her work with CAFOD’s partner APOIO, Ivanete helped all the families occupy the barely inhabitable building back in March 2007 – and together they set about a huge clean-up operation. Just 18 months later, there is even a school for the children, and people prepare food together. But, as Ivanete knows only too well, they – relatively speaking – are the lucky ones.

More than two million people still live in corrugated shacks in Sao Paulo’s favelas and, with jobs hard to find, 15,000 live on the streets. New arrivals seeking work in Brazil’s cities are left to fend for themselves, often living in make-shift structures of cardboard, scraps of wood and bare concrete. Others live in tenement buildings in the city centre, paying high rents for poor quality accommodation. In some cases extended families live in one room with no proper sewerage, running water or electricity.

APOIO is lobbying the government to deal with this housing crisis and helping homeless people reclaim some of the city’s disused buildings. Under Brazilian law homeless people have the legal right to claim disused buildings that serve no social function. There are 420,000 empty apartments in the city and nearly 40,000 abandoned buildings. Ivanete and others are pressing the local government to buy the building they occupy so they can pay rent according to their earnings – rather than the exorbitant rents usually charged in the city.

There is also a compelling environmental need for reclaiming disused housing. Sao Paulo is a vast city of 11 million people – and it’s growing. As it spreads, it destroys areas of environmental importance and pollutes sources of water. It is a bitter irony that the city centre contains thousands of homes and buildings left empty. By working to turn these buildings into decent places to live, APOIO is helping to protect the environment, as well as allowing low-income families to live in the heart of the city close to their place of work. Ivanete says: “If the government sends people to the outskirts, not only does it destroy the environment there, but there is no water, no schools, no shops, and it takes two or three hours to reach the centre to work, so people could lose their jobs.”

As well as ensuring homeless people are rehoused in the city centre, APOIO is pushing for housing with regular rubbish collection, good water supply, sanitation and green outdoor spaces – as well as new energy-efficient housing developments using solar power. Ivanete, who is now also a member of the municipal housing council, notes: “There is a real need to include the environment in issues around education, health and housing. But the dignity of homeless people and their needs will always come first.”


CAFOD is the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. CAFOD believes that all human beings have a right to dignity and respect, and that the world’s resources are a gift to be shared equally by all men and women, whatever their race, nationality or religion. Underpinning CAFOD’s work is a deeply held set of values that are central to its ethos and identity. We act based on principles of compassion, solidarity, stewardship and hope.

Photo: Ivanete de Araujo. [Photo credit: Joelle Hernandez/Cafod]