Julie Ruvolo is a freelance journalist and editor of the Red Light Rio project. She is a research collaborator with Rio’s Observatory of Prostitution, an extension project of the Metropolitan Ethnographic Lab – LeMetro/IFCS at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Social media projects in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo illuminate the lives of the homeless in Brazil's biggest cities—without value judgments.
RIO DE JANEIRO—
Life on the street is hard. We confront prejudice every single day. People already assume you're a bum; their eyes glaze over; they define you as someone who isn't worth anything, and treat you with disdain. That's why I don't like asking people for money. Whoever's asking really needs it, but I'd rather not bother anyone. I collect cans for some small change or I just go hungry. I prefer to walk my path alone.
This is how José Carlos, a 27-year-old who lives on the street in Rio de Janeiro, begins his story. It's one of dozens that a project called Rio invisível (Invisible Rio) has been publishing on Facebook to offer a glimpse of life through the eyes of the homeless in Brazil.
"We wanted to create a daily exercise in seeing life on the streets of the city—to redirect the gaze to the people who are there," according to Nelson Pinho and Yzadora Monteiro, the recent college grads who started the page. "We want to transform the street from a hallway to a place we are just present." In just the last month, the project has gathered 48,000 "likes."
São Paulo's homeless population, according to a government census, was just under 15,000 in 2011. About half of those people were in detainment centers or shelters, and half were on the street.
Treatment of the homeless by Brazilian authorities can be harsh. Prior to the World Cup this summer, Rio and São Paulo ran compulsory removal programs of minors living on the street and anyone they deemed a "crack addict." In Rio, hundreds of homeless people were forcibly brought to two shelters, which were under judicial orders not to receive more.
The Rio invisível creators built on São Paulo invisível, which launched in March and just crossed 100,000 Facebook "likes." Monteiro and Pinho asked the São Paulo organizers, Vinicius Lima and André Soler, if they could start a similar Rio page. ("They said, 'Awesome,'" Pinho recalls.) The invisible project has reached more Brazilian cities now: Floripa, Campo Grande, Fortaleza, and Curitiba.
Pinho and Monteiro usually meet up on lunch breaks in Rio's Largo do Machado neighborhood. "It's easier to find people during the week," Pinho says. They ask if they can sit and talk, quickly explain the project, and just start a conversation.
"We used to ask questions like, 'What's hard about living on the street?'" Monteiro says. "And now we ask, 'How is it living on the street?' We've tried to take our value judgments out of it. And once we dropped our script and our value judgments, things became much more spontaneous."
In one of her few interviews with a woman ("They have a bigger barrier"), Monteiro talked with a 16-year-old named Estefany who has been living on the street since she was 10 and her parents were assassinated.
"I asked about her ex-boyfriend, the big love of her life, who had died from a gunshot wound. I said, 'What did you like about him?' And she said, 'The way he looked at me.' And in that moment I said, 'Wow, Estefany, that's it. That's why we like someone.' I forgot everything else, it was just me and Estefany talking."
Estefany's story resonated with 3,500 people on Facebook, par for the course for one of Rio invisível’s interviews. "People who live on the streets always have a third party looking at them and saying what they are," Monteiro says. "We're making them the subject of the story—how they want to be seen."
That provokes uneasiness in viewers as well as sympathy, Pinho says. "Sometimes you have people who leave comments like, 'If he had a job before, why is he homeless?' Like people want to find a reason to justify why they're homeless."
Vinicius Lima, who has published more than 100 stories on São Paulo invisível with his friend André Soler, says they're not aiming to solicit handouts or even get interviewees off the streets, necessarily.
"Our focus is to change the mentality of the all of the people who are back in their houses, to open their eyes," he says. "We want to show that this person has a story. That if you want to help, [it should be] horizontal. It’s justice, not charity."
During interviews, Pinho says, "I've seen people I know just walk by and not see me." Or passersby will stop and stare at a homeless person. "One guy told me, 'This is normal, people look at you like you're a sick dog.'"
"Everyone who walks by here wants to put us down," said Tiago, a 27-year-old living on the street in Rio who was interviewed in October. "I'm here on the street and nobody communicates with me; I'm just here alone. I need a blanket, I need food, I need human contact and love."
"A lot of people say the same thing: that what they miss the most is love," Pinho says. "Not safety, love. And contact."