Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – One night about a year ago, Leandro Mota Generoso was sleeping on a street in downtown Rio de Janeiro when he felt something jagged strike his face.
Somebody, he didn’t see the person, but believes it was a resident in the neighbourhood, had slashed his nose with broken glass from a bottle. He woke up in a pool of blood.
“I can’t sleep at night any more,” said Generoso, 23, who has been homeless since his grandfather, who was raising him, died five years ago. “To many people, we are rats, garbage or whatever thing.”
“That is the reality and now there are many more homeless in the streets,” he added.
A year after Rio de Janeiro hosted the Olympic Games, a grinding economic crisis has led to an influx of thousands of homeless people, creating a climate of tension that city officials are scrambling to address.
Warm temperatures and kilometres of beaches have long made Brazil’s most famous city a place with a large street population. But city officials say it’s more than tripled in the last few years to an estimated 15,000 people.
Today’s homeless in Rio include thousands who came from other states for work before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics and subsequently lost their jobs.
“Rio de Janeiro is facing the worst possible scenario when it comes to the homeless,” said Pedro Fernandes, the city’s secretary of social assistance and human rights. “We have never had such a large number in the streets.”
The city has launched an initiative to spruce up shelters and persuade more homeless people to use them. Many shun shelters because they often have strict rules and, by the city’s own acknowledgement, have fallen into disrepair, with infestations of bugs and filthy bathrooms.
“You may go into a shelter healthy, but then how will you come out?” said Nancy Gouveia, a 49-year-old who has been on the streets three years.