Surprising truths about drugs and life on the streets in Sao Paulo

cracolandia nov 14
I recently went to Sao Paulo to write for the BBC about a Facebook page, Sao Paulo Invisivel (Invisible Sao Paulo) which tells the stories of homeless people on the streets of Sao Paulo and photographs them. It has been a huge success, with some people reuniting with their families and moving into rented accommodation purely as a result of the page and its 140,000+ supporters.

While I was there, I also visited the area known as Cracolandia, Sao Paulo’s Crackland. I found out about it during my first stint in Brazil, during which a massive and violent operation cleared out the area. The resulting photographs on a US news site were like something from a film, crumbling buildings eerily lit by police lights, painfully thin people who looked like zombies scattering as the police descended. I went for the first time for an alternative football event held there during the World Cup, and then it was during the day, as well as the fact the area was swelled with people from various NGOs and the municipal authority. Hardly the zombie apocalypse I had been expecting, but perhaps not a normal day there (if such a thing exists). A visit on my own later on revealed some surprising facts about the place and its hundreds of inhabitants. This was after those inhabitants had been wheeled out for lurid World Cup reports on the dark side of Brazil that beamed out all over the world. Here are a few of those things, in random order, which I found surprising (but true) about the zone of Sao Paulo which has been taken over by drug users and their dealers.

They’re not zombies
alexandre cracolandia
Alexandre, 40, who has been in Cracolandia for half his life

I can’t pretend that what I saw there isn’t sad and shocking, because it is. People scrabble in the dust on the ground for bits of the crack rocks which might have broken off. This is in a place where a rock costs just R$5, or £1.25. Some are dressed bizarrely, or partially dressed, with the ravages of drug abuse clear on their bodies. However, like alcoholics, there are varying degrees of this ravagement, and just like alcoholics, some have jobs. I spoke to Alexandre, now 40, who has spent 20 years of his life in Cracolandia. He has now been off crack for four months, and participates in the De Bracos Abertos scheme (of Open Arms) which gives people living there some money in return for doing some work for the municipal authority. The work Alexandre is doing now is mainly street cleaning, but interestingly he worked almost all of the time he was in Cracolandia. I’ve worked with alcoholics and people with cocaine problems before (what journalist hasn’t), and while their work might be affected in some cases, many still function to some degree while some will ultimately be lost forever. Crack may appear a world away, but the same rule applies.
“My father kicked me out of the house because I’m gay,” Alexandre told me. He gravitated towards this cheap, transient part of the city firstly as an adolescent because he didn’t have anywhere to live. “The community is good here, I made friends. At first, I only smoked marijuana or drank pinga [pinga is a slang term for cachaca, the sugarcane spirit made in Brazil],” he said. After a while, he experimented with crack as the people around him were doing. He is under no illusions about the effect it had on him. “It was total degradation,” he said, as only a life without inhibitions, conducted entirely on the street, could be. Yet there is still always a person inside that zombie shell. “I lost my self-esteem. People treat you like an animal, but were are still humans,” he stressed.
Some people, whether under the influence or not (people who have been heavy users of any type of cocaine, of which crack is a byproduct, seem to have that fast, intense way of talking to you at all times, I’ve noticed) want to tell you about their previous lives. It is poignant, because they are often convinced they will go back tomorrow and leave Cracolandia behind, but in many cases that will never happen. A man approached me in Rio’s version of Cracolandia carrying a laptop bag, and gave me his email address, although there was no laptop inside, he was not working and was squatting in an abandoned, half-demolished house. These stories may be a form of drug users’ denial but they are also a reminder that family, love bonds, work and individual interests are inside us all. To have slipped into this twilight zone for a while does not mean they have been totally forgotten.

They’re not all on crack
rita roseane
Rita Rose, Cracolandia’s community leader, with police officer Roseane

During the day, behind the band of crack users and makeshift tents they have assembled, there are a team of NGOs and a community base where the police have a permanent presence. All of this means there are various people who are in the transitional stage of trying to leave the crack life, as well as all the workers there. The most incredible person I met was Rita Rose, 48, the community leader. Yes, Crackland has a community leader. Though not an addict herself, she arrived in this place in 2009 to find her husband, an addict. “I slept here at night on the floor with my arms round him, I took him to hotels when I could, I fed him,” she remembered. “I fought it all, but he’s in prison. It’s a strong love. I don’t want to lose him like I lost my first husband, because of crack. I have to believe we can win.”
Rita now mediates between fights – which have been known to end in the death of one or more of the participants – and speaks up on behalf of the residents to the authorities, among other tasks. She puts her ability to resist the bacchanalia all around her down to her strict upbringing. It’s hard not to imagine that she has seen and experienced the worst of drug addiction too, and that has put her off, but then again maybe such rationale has no place in this world. If it gets you it gets you. That’s true of any drug.
“This place has a name. Don’t call it Cracolandia, this area is Campos Eliseos,” she implored me. The area known as Cracolandia has moved over the years, but Campos Eliseos is the official name for where it now stands. Looking around, how could anyone see anything but a Crackland, I thought to myself. But Rita sees Campos Eliseos, and maybe I should try to do the same.

Government schemes have been a success – but that has not reduced the population
The de Bracos Abertos scheme is nearly a year old now, and it has been hailed as a success. Alexandre, the 40-year-old rejected by his homophobic father, was one of its success stories. It has been coupled with a police approach which has officially been softened. While notably brutal in the past, the policy is now to only arrest drug dealers, although this is sometimes a grey area in Cracolandia, where users will carry drugs or sell them in return for tiny amounts.
The problem is that this hasn’t reduced numbers, which can go up to about 1,500 people at night. Quite the contrary.
“I have realised that the population is getting bigger. People know that there is the opportunity for treatment here,” Sergeant Herrera told me. Another reason is that the users feel safer together, as well as the fact that they know they can buy drugs there. There is also speculation from the municipal authority that the homeless population in Sao Paulo is increasing generally.
As I was leaving, the NGOs working there were about to have a meeting to decide what to do about the increasing population. Maybe part of the problem is that the more enlightened policies of the past year or so are not being enacted in other parts of Sao Paulo state. A more joined-up approach would definitely seem a better idea. Sadly, Brazil’s healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with all these addicts. These few islands of assistance, such as the Bracos Abertos scheme, are all they have, and that won’t help everyone.