One mattress per household

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66 people from São Paulo are homeless and 19 million citizens are hungry in Brazil. How to explain our cruel contempt for the suffering of others?

The couple lives there, under a long marquee painted green, a few minutes from the intersection of Rebouças and Faria Lima. At that same address, there used to be a dimly lit supermarket, with the musty air of a commercial warehouse. Today, with its metal doors tightly locked, the property no longer has any social or commercial function. Only the sidewalk, only it, found a use: it became a popular dormitory. It was there that the young couple took up residence, in peaceful neighborhood with other residents. The profiled, silent and discreet mattresses were organized so as not to disturb anyone: they were careful to leave a good stretch of pavement free for pedestrians to travel without turning their heads.

The girl is tall, beautiful. From his large, clear eyes, enhanced by the tan tone of his face, there is a sense of peace that sometimes reaches those who pass by. Her nose describes a pronounced arc, in a thin bridge between her forehead and lips. Elegant and slender, the nose denotes personality, but not careerism. When she stretches out on the taut blanket, mid-afternoon, she lets on that she's happy. We have something to learn from her.

The girl, her husband and the neighbors sometimes have lunch in the same place where they sleep. They talk about this and that. Frayed suitcases serve as bedside tables. Cardboard boxes disassembled and arranged on the side, as dividers, help cut the wind and demarcate the domains of privacy of each of the homes in a row.

One of these days there was a Samu car parked beside it. A health professional was examining the citizen with the calm eyes, which, at that moment, were tightened in an expression of pain. She was sitting on the edge of her address, her bare feet on the public floor. With both hands, she squeezed the left side of her stomach. Two afternoons later she was there again, with that air of fullness that only human beings who lack nothing can experience. Yes, we have something to learn from her.

And with so many more. Homeless people multiplied throughout São Paulo. At Amaral Gurgel, under the Minhocão, there are tents reinforced with additional layers of plastic sheeting, next to beds in the open air. On the connection between Avenida Paulista and Doutor Arnaldo, in that terraced tunnel that crosses the head of Consolação underneath, the sleeping tents proliferated like a flowering. Those who pass by see the conversation circles, which resemble the chairs on the sidewalk in small towns in the interior. Framed by the little Christmas lights that appear on the facades of financial institutions, the new urban occupation makes us think of living cribs. The metaphor is cheesy, as we know, but it is compelling.

We are a city that generates homelessness on a super-industrial scale. We are a city that produces poverty, hunger and abandonment, but we don't know what we are and what we do. We don't see the segregation we manufacture. We are a city that turns a blind eye to flesh-and-blood nativity scenes and prays poignant prayers in front of fake nativity scenes – some of them very expensive, financed by banks on the pavement of Avenida Paulista.

Homeless people multiply in the same proportion as the profits of financiers. In 2019, the Homeless Population Census counted 24,3 homeless people in São Paulo. Now, estimates account for 66 São Paulo residents without a home to live in. The pandemic made the picture worse. Statistics say that 19 million citizens starve in Brazil. Statistics have neither a face nor a heart, but what is most disturbing is that we, ourselves, the presumptuous ones here who boast that we can read statistics, seem to have neither face nor heart nor responsibility. It's like it's not with us.

We are the metropolis that will die of insensitivity. We are the nation that will die of meritocracy, not knowing that the hungry and the exiled form a single body with us. We never understand what that means, ensconced in our pathetic petulance. We are still far from knowing that worse than having a mattress at home is having ostentation as an ideal of enjoyment.

But it won't be anything, let's be optimistic. It's Christmas, you know, so let's be confident in such a better future. Let's imagine that the city of São Paulo and Brazil will manage to cross this canyon of shame and horror and that, from there, we can see the time that will have passed in photographs in history books. This is in the optimistic perspective, of course. Imagine the rhetoric we will have to invent to explain our cruel contempt for the suffering of our fellow human beings. Why did we do nothing when we could have done everything?

In the future, if there is a future, the portraits of suffering that we create in the streets and peripheries of Brazil will be as shocking as the scenes that we keep today from the Warsaw ghetto. What shall we say? That it wasn't our fault? Meanwhile, the pretty girl and her husband might spend Christmas under the marquee. Happy, in their own way. Without mask.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of A superindustry of the imaginary (Autentica).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul.


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