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How a Brazilian priest got his city to pay attention to its unhoused citizens' needs

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The economic misery inflicted by COVID-19 comes in multiple forms. In many countries, the heaviest price is paid by the poor, and that includes Brazil. The number of homeless people in Brazil's megacity, Sao Paulo, has soared since the pandemic began. NPR's Philip Reeves met one man whose campaign to fight for their rights is winning him friends and enemies.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Life is tough on the frontline of the battle against homelessness in Brazil. No one knows that better than this man.

JULIO LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Julio Lancellotti is a Catholic priest. He's 73.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Lancellotti has worked among Sao Paulo's street people for 40 years. Yet if you suggest he actually helps them, you get a prickly reply.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I don't help anyone," he says. "I live with them. I share what I can with them."

For Lancellotti, this is about faith and about pushing back against intolerance and injustice.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Society has to find a better way of living together," he says.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: We're in the yard of Lancellotti's parish church. He's just walked in. He's wearing a long yellow apron and pushing a shopping cart containing bread rolls.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He gives the rolls to the handful of people milling around, seeking food and clothing. They include Fernando De Jesus, a father of three small kids. Four months ago, Fernando left his family in the countryside and moved to the city.

FERNANDO DE JESUS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Sao Paulo is big and modern. There are opportunities for me here," he says. He's yet to find a job.

RAQUEL ROLNIK: Sao Paulo is one of the global cities of the world. It's a place that has an enormous economic power and dynamic and great, immense poverty as well.

REEVES: Raquel Rolnik is a professor of urban studies and an expert on Sao Paolo. These are hard times for the poor, she says. Soaring inflation and high unemployment are coupled with a real estate boom.

ROLNIK: The result is we are living today one of the worst housing crises that Sao Paolo has lived throughout the history of this city.

REEVES: Rolnik knows Lancellotti.

ROLNIK: He is a courageous man. He's doing incredible work. And he is one among very few that help to make the voices of the homeless heard in the city.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: A crowd of men, women and children stands in front of a community center, waiting to go in for lunch. This street is cluttered with makeshift shelters. Dogs wander amid the trash.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese through loudspeaker).

REEVES: Prayers are broadcast through a battered loudspeaker on the sidewalk. Then the meal begins. It's provided by a church organization that's teamed up with Lancellotti. The number of people eating here has tripled since the pandemic began.

Ronaldo Goncalves Lourenco became homeless after his baby son died and his marriage fell apart.

RONALDO GONCALVES LOURENCO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I don't have anything," says Lourenco, who's 27 - "no house, no tent, no salary."

GONCALVES LOURENCO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Thank God Lancellotti helps us a lot," he says.

Homelessness in Sao Paolo has risen by nearly a third in two years. At least 31,000 people live on the streets, according to a recent census. Tents are popping up all over town.

CARLOS BEZERRA JR: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Carlos Bezerra Jr. is the city hall official in charge of handling this crisis.

BEZERRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We're treating it as an emergency," says Bezerra.

Lancellotti is a regular critic of city hall. Bezerra knows him well.

BEZERRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we don't. But I have immense respect for him," says Bezerra.

Bezerra and his team are now scrambling to help the city's new wave of homeless with temporary housing, health services and more. For Lancellotti, no one's doing enough.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Government only ever offers the homeless crumbs," he says, "yet it denies that basic rights."

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He points out some towering luxury apartment blocks being built nearby.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Sao Paulo is controlled by the real estate market," he says. The poorest will always be pushed out in a giant metropolis driven by profit. That view is a red flag to some in Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: That's a video posted by a far-right Catholic group. It accuses Lancellotti of being a communist. This group is not his only enemy. There are residents who hate that people live on their streets and believe he encourages them. Lancellotti says he gets death threats.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "They're very common," he says.

Yet Lancellotti is also collecting plenty of fans. His Instagram following has recently surged to nearly 1 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS AND YELLING)

REEVES: He posted this footage.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS AND YELLING)

REEVES: It's of police clearing an area notorious for drugs. They're firing rubber bullets and tear gas at street people. Lancellotti pulls out his cellphone and shows pictures he's posted.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: They're of so-called hostile architecture, structures deliberately designed to drive away homeless people.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He shows a photo of a Sao Paulo supermarket.

LANCELLOTTI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: And points to the metal spikes on the ground.

A bill is before Brazil's Congress that would ban this hostile architecture. It's named after Lancellotti. Hostile architecture is all too familiar for the multitude trying to survive on the streets of Sao Paolo. Carlos Alberto Ramos knows where the best sleeping spots are.

CARLOS ALBERTO RAMOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Sooner or later, you go to one, and it's full of spikes or shards of glass," he says.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Ramos is among a crowd of homeless hanging out under the palm trees in front of the city's grandiose Metropolitan Cathedral. He sums up his life on these streets in three words.

ALBERTO RAMOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Neglect, unemployment and broken promises."

With Ramos is his wife, Larissa Arruda, and baby. They live in a shelter. Arruda still has big dreams.

LARISSA ARRUDA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I might become a teacher one day or a lawyer," she says.

Ramos says he just wants a job - any job. Until then, this family depends on people like Lancellotti.

ALBERTO RAMOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We need more Padre Lancellottis," says Ramos - "many more."

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Sao Paolo.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIEVERY CORPORATION'S "SAMBA TRANQUILLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.