For Rio’s poor, finding shelter is a never-ending struggle.


Luiza do Santos and two of her kids look down at police as an order is issued to vacate the old Ministry of the Economy building by noon. (Photo: C.H. Gardiner)

Luiza do Santos and two of her kids look down at police as an order is issued to vacate the old Ministry of the Economy building by noon. (Photo: C.H. Gardiner)

The police arrived shortly after sunrise on August 8, 2018, just as many of the residents were leaving for work. The authorities flanked the walls of the old Ministry of the Economy building as those that had made it their home -- in some cases for more than a decade -- were given until noon to leave. The riot gear, batons, and pepper spray equipped by the police made it obvious what the alternative was for those that refused to go.

The former government building was erected in the shadow of Rio’s famous Maracana stadium, located in a worn down neighborhood called Mangueira. But with time it was abandoned, and the city’s poor moved in.. They set up thin plywood walls to divide the vast building into apartments. On the wet August morning the derelict building's 150 families were told that they had to collect their belongings and get out.

The conditions for those squatting there were never ideal. Gangs controlled the area surrounding the massive building and stray bullets from the city's drug wars were always a risk. The roof leaked and in one area it had collapsed in on a subdivision belonging to a family of five. Luckily no one was home at the time. But despite all the problems, the neglected building was a shelter for families trying to survive in a city which has been shaped and made famous by its economically segregated housing market.

“We don’t live here because we want to, we’d just as soon live in a regular house. But its just too expensive to live in Rio. If I want to get to work on time then I have to live wherever is close enough,” said Willian, a resident of the Red Indian, another building in Mangueira also scheduled for destruction.

In April 2018, Rio’s government announced that it would be building 2000 homes for the city’s poor as part of a program called “My House, my Home.” To make space for the developments several old buildings including the former Ministry of the Economy building and the Red Indian were scheduled to be demolished. Those living inside were told by government representatives that they would have priority when the new houses were ready but that it was expected to take longer than a year. In the meantime, many of those living inside were left without anywhere to go but the street. 

“I don’t know what I will do,” said Luiza do Santos well she and her three children rushed to collected their things before the noon deadline. “I just want to protect my kids. The police come in with pepper spray and rubber bullets. I won't let that happen to my children so we're leaving.”

A resident of the former Ministry of the Economy building walks through a hall that used to contain several unoficial apartments for the city's poor. (Photo: C.H. Gardiner)

A resident of the former Ministry of the Economy building walks through a hall that used to contain several unoficial apartments for the city's poor. (Photo: C.H. Gardiner)

Rio’s difficult geography has resulted in many of the city's disenfranchised being forced to live in whatever shelter they can find or build. Among the poor, the poorest live in abandoned buildings. Those that can afford it build red brick and corrugated Iron houses on the side of the hills or in the city's suburbs. These improvised housing solutions make up Rio’s iconic favelas, home to their own vibrant culture. In recent years the number of people living in favelas has increased substantially. According to a study by the Instituto Pereira Passos Rio’s favelas have experienced their most significant growth since 2012, growing nearly 330 thousand square meters - about half the size of Disneyland - between 2016 and 2017.

But for many building a home in such informal settlements aren't cheap and come with their own risks. “It costs a lot of money to buy material and pay for labor. Most people build a part of their home at a time as they can afford it. But you never know if the government will come later and kick you out after you’ve spent all your money,” said Antonio Barbosa as he worked on his nearly complete home in the jungle behind Copacabana. He says he would never be able to afford to live in legal housing in the same area.

The expense of living in favelas has made illegal squats inside abandoned buildings like the old Ministry of the Economy building one of the few options for the city’s more impoverished residents. 

But as the buildings are condemned for destruction by the government and the residents forced out many end up moving down the street to any other abandoned and disused space.

“48 of the families living here come from down the street,” Said Washington Fortunato the President of the Mangueira Residents Association about the old Ministry of the Economy building. “They jump from one building to another. After they are kicked out of here they will go break into another building and so on,” he says. “The government wants to end crime, but they put people on the street. What do they think will happen?”

Representatives of Rio's Mayor say that they are trying to do the best they can to help in a difficult situation. 70 of the 150 families living in the building are eligible to receive 400 Brazilian Reals a month, and when the houses are built on the vacant lots, the former residents will be given priority.

In the meantime do Santos said she would look for somewhere else to stay with her children. “I have to keep them out of school till they have somewhere to come home to. We’ve been here for ten years, but we have to move on now. Some people are born on top; we were born on the bottom. Well just have to keep trying to keep going as best we can.”