'Stay home,' impossible advice for Rio's homeless

Joshua Howat Berger
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A homeless woman plays with her dog at the Lapa neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 23, 2020

Stay home, wash hands -- the rules of the coronavirus pandemic sound simple enough. But not for people who don't have homes, on the streets in places like Rio de Janeiro.

The Brazilian city has gone into near lockdown in recent days, shutting schools, restaurants, its world-famous beaches and its iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.

"Cariocas," as residents are known, were initially reluctant, but are now largely staying home.

But home is not an option for the city's estimated 15,000 homeless, whose lives have only gotten harder in times of coronavirus.

Panhandlers begging for spare change and food face eerily empty streets. Soup kitchens face a struggle to remain open as volunteers stay home. And there are fears the city's overstretched homeless shelters could become infection hotbeds.

"We are trying to survive in this situation. It's a struggle. We are trying to do whatever we can to get by, because lots of people have stopped helping us out of fear of this virus," said Paulo Souza, 35, a homeless man in Rio's Lapa neighborhood.

Usually the heart of the city's nightlife, Lapa is almost deserted these days.

The neighborhood is famous for a sweeping white aqueduct that cuts across it. The homeless now have it almost to themselves, free to sleep beneath its elegant colonial arches undisturbed by cars or pedestrians.

"We want to get off the streets. We have to if we want to eat, because people are no longer helping us. They're afraid because they can't have any kind of physical contact, and to receive anything we need physical contact and proximity," said Denice dos Santos, 41.

She urged far-right President Jair Bolsonaro -- who has condemned the "hysteria" around the virus and criticized the economic impact of containment measures -- to "do something" for people like her who are suffering.

"But don't just round us up and put us (in homeless shelters) with a bunch of other people," she said.

The city's homeless shelters have just 2,300 beds -- less than one-sixth the size of the homeless population.

Many homeless people say they fear overcrowding there would only spread the virus.

But they are hardly safe on the street.

"If it's time for me to get (the virus), I'll get it, because I drink water from the same glass as my friends here," said one 23-year-old homeless man, who asked not to be named.

The new coronavirus first arrived in Brazil as a rich person's disease, brought back by travelers to Europe.

But fears are mounting over what will happen as it starts to spread among the poor, including in impoverished favela neighborhoods that lack basic health and sanitation infrastructure.

The homeless population faces even greater risks.

Brazil is the Latin American country hit hardest by the coronavirus so far, with 2,201 confirmed cases and 46 deaths.