Sao Bernando do Campo, Sao Paulo – As the sky cleared after a morning of rain, two young men hammered wooden beams into wet earth on a stretch of land, covered by thousands of tents made from plastic sheeting and timber.
It is here where squatters have built a teeming tent city, named the People without Fear Occupation, in the industrial city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, next to Sao Paulo.
The occupation sits on a fenced-off 70 square-kilometre lot – roughly the size of eight soccer pitches – and is overlooked by middle class condominium blocks.
The squatters say they are driven by expensive rents and Brazil’s current economic crisis. Unemployment is the highest in decades at 12.4 percent. More than 13 million are unemployed.
Almost all of those living here survive precariously day to day from odd jobs. Many have racked up debts.
They are occupying the land to pressure the government to build more low-income housing.
Hundreds of similar occupations have sprung up in recent years, on the edges of Sao Paulo, South America’s wealthiest city, and across Brazil.
“I used to reject jobs if the money or the conditions weren’t right. Now I’ll take anything,” Helio da Conceicao dos Santos, a 25-year-old professional bricklayer, told Al Jazeera.
Adelino de Lima Silva, a 34-year-old construction worker unemployed since 2015, said that sometimes only manages two or three odd jobs a month.
“Jobs which used to pay BRL$150 [$47] now pay BRL$100 [$31] or BRL$80 [$25] it’s really competitive. We used to live well employed full time, now it’s barely enough to eat,” he added.
Douglas Souza Ferreira, a 27-year-old father of one, lost his job at a soft drinks factory three years ago.
“You chase after jobs, spending your own money. Then when things don’t work out, you come home upset because you can’t provide for your family,” he said.
Organisers say on the first day of the occupation in early September, 500 families occupied the empty land. But within a week, that number grew to 5,000 families, and by early October more than 7,500 families were set up there.
“This shows the worsening social crisis in Brazil and the deepening housing deficit,” Guilherme Boulos, national coordinator for the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) that organised the occupation and commands dozens of others across Sao Paulo state and more nationwide, told Al Jazeera.
‘The perfect storm’
Brazil’s housing deficit stood at 6.2 million homes according to a study by Joao Pinheiro Foundation using the last available data from 2015.
Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous, was the most affected, with a total deficit of 1.3 million homes.
Even in Sao Paulo’s far-flung neighbourhoods, which lack infrastructure, are often crime ridden and can require two hour commutes downtown, apartment rentals usually cost between $150 and $240. Minimum wage is about $285 a month.
Boulos said the housing deficit worsened since 2015 as Brazil plunged deeper into recession, the result of falling commodity prices, economic mismanagement and political crisis. The economy contracted 3.8 percent in 2016.
The Sao Paulo ABC region where the occupation is located was once the country’s booming industrial hub. It has lost 80,000 jobs since 2015 according to data by the Brazil Institute of Geography and Statistics.
“The majority of workers on the urban peripheries don’t own their house; they rent and are totally vulnerable – if family members lose their jobs and income falls drastically, they lose their home,” Boulos said.
“This is the drama being lived by millions of families across Brazil today and is causing occupations to increase across the country.”
He added that cuts to the federal social housing programme “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” have exacerbated the crisis.
“It’s a perfect storm – increased demand and reduced supply of low-income housing,” Boulos said.
Data given to Al Jazeera by Brazil’s Ministry of Cities confirmed that the number of low-income housing units built to attend families with a monthly income is less than $550 dropped from 537,000 units in 2013 to just 17,000 units in 2015 and 37,000 units in 2016.
The Sao Bernardo occupation has community kitchens, bathrooms and meeting rooms where tasks are allocated such as cleaning and cooking. Many spend their time divided between the camp and friends or relatives houses.
‘We’re not looking for handouts’
Heloha dos Santos Silva,17, and her husband Marlon, 19, live at the occupation full time with their nine-month-old daughter Helena. Marlon does odd jobs working at a car wash, but rarely gets work.
“It’s a squeeze and sometimes water gets inside when it rains. What we dream of is our own home,” said Heloha.
Organisers say they want the land disappropriated and used to build low-income housing. This is legal in Brazil if the property has remained vacant and unproductive for some time.
In 2014 ahead of Brazil’s football world cup, squatters won the right to remain and build low-income housing on an abandoned lot in Sao Paulo’s East Zone, an occupation dubbed “Cup of the People”.
“We’re not looking for handouts, we want what we have the right to in the constitution: housing, decent healthcare, education,” said Andreia Barbosa, a single mother of five and one of the camp coordinators.
Organisers and local media say the Sao Bernardo lot belongs to construction company MZM Construtora and has been vacant for 40 years. They also allege the company owes hundreds of thousands of Brazilian real in back taxes to the local government.
Al Jazeera contacted MZM Construtora for comment but received no response by the time of publication.
Local government and a neighbourhood petition group say the occupation affronts property rights.
“It’s ridiculous, you can’t just invade someone else’s property, the land has an owner,” said Eneas Moreira, 54, a consultant for the automotive industry whose apartment overlooks the camp. He said he feared that the occupation would bring down the value of his apartment.
“It’s terrible to see each day, the conditions are appalling, there is no infrastructure there,” he said.
Moreira and about 2,000 others recently took part in a street protest against the occupation.
Brazilian media reported that one of the squatters was shot with an air-gun on the day of the protest.
Sao Bernardo City Hall said in an official comment to Al Jazeera: “The administration is against any form of invasion, be it public or private land.”
It added that it has its own housing programme with “1,980 people on the waiting list”.
The eviction of the occupation has been ordered by a local judge.
The squatters, the judiciary, the owner of the land and local security chiefs are expected to meet on December 11 to negotiate the eviction.
Sao Bernardo Mayor Orlando Morando posted a video on his Facebook, welcoming the eviction but said he hoped it would be peaceful.
Evictions from similar occupations have been rough in the past.
In 2012, an eviction of a similar housing occupation Pinheirinho on the outskirts of Sao Jose dos Campos in Sao Paulo state ended in a pitched battle between military police and occupiers that lasted two days with scores injured.
On October 31, 10,000 housing movement activists marched 20km from the Sao Bernardo occupation to Sao Paulo’s governor’s palace to demand the disappropriation of the land.
Local media reported that authorities will meet with the squatters again next week to review their demands.
“Our rights won’t fall out of the sky, that’s why it’s important that we continue to mobilise,” said Boulos.