Meet the Millions of Brazilians Battling for Shelter

From the slums of São Paulo to the backcountry of Bahia, a third of Brazil’s families are caught in a desperate—and increasingly organized—struggle for somewhere to live.

Meet the Millions of Brazilians Battling for Shelter

Brazil is the fifth largest country on the planet, with a total area of more than three million square miles. Yet ever since the Portuguese settled here some 500 years ago, an outsize number of its residents have struggled for a place to live.

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Today the dimensions of Brazil’s housing shortage have reached alarming levels. One-third of Brazil’s families are either homeless or live in poor-quality houses. At the same time, a booming industrial sector and the effects of globalization have pushed the price of land to exorbitant levels.

São Paulo and other major cities have seen the rise of social movements led by activists who occupy abandoned buildings. The owners of these empty properties usually have debts from unpaid taxes that they cannot honor. Many have been forcibly removed from the buildings, but the movement has also gained political momentum lately. The mayor of São Paulo recently announced the purchase of forty buildings that will be turned into popular housing projects. Meanwhile, in more remote rural areas, Brazil’s indigenous people and other impoverished citizens have engaged in similarly hard-fought battles for a place to call home.

A housing complex in the city of Mauá has been occupied by activists since 2007, with an estimated 1,000 people living here.
A housing complex in the city of Mauá has been occupied by activists since 2007, with an estimated 1,000 people living here.
A man carries his mattress during the eviction of a São Paulo building that had been occupied by activists. There are an estimated eighty empty or abandoned buildings in the center of the city.
A man carries his mattress during the eviction of a São Paulo building that had been occupied by activists. There are an estimated eighty empty or abandoned buildings in the center of the city.
A forlorn resident after the eviction of about seventy families from a building in São Paulo that had been occupied by activists.
A forlorn resident after the eviction of about seventy families from a building in São Paulo that had been occupied by activists.
An army of men from the Pinheirinho, the largest and most famous occupation in Brazil, which lasted seven years in the city of São José dos Campos. Residents were violently evicted in 2012.
An army of men from the Pinheirinho, the largest and most famous occupation in Brazil, which lasted seven years in the city of São José dos Campos. Residents were violently evicted in 2012.
A family rests on the street in São Paulo after being evicted from an occupied building. Many of these families will end up homeless and living on the street.
A family rests on the street in São Paulo after being evicted from an occupied building. Many of these families will end up homeless and living on the street.
Homeless people wash themselves in a drainage and sewer duct that empties to the Tietê River in São Paulo. The latest census estimates that about 15,000 people live on the streets of this city.
Homeless people wash themselves in a drainage and sewer duct that empties to the Tietê River in São Paulo. The latest census estimates that about 15,000 people live on the streets of this city.
A homeless crack user peeks out of his “house,” a shack made of wood and blankets and located under a bridge in São Paulo.
A homeless crack user peeks out of his “house,” a shack made of wood and blankets and located under a bridge in São Paulo.
Aerial view of a favela in the city of São Paulo, where an estimated 1.5 million people live in such makeshift slums.
Aerial view of a favela in the city of São Paulo, where an estimated 1.5 million people live in such makeshift slums.
A wealthy neighborhood abutting a favela.
A wealthy neighborhood abutting a favela.
The Ocupação Estaiadinha — Estaiadinha Occupation — a small favela in the central region of São Paulo.
The Ocupação Estaiadinha — Estaiadinha Occupation — a small favela in the central region of São Paulo.
In 2013, families were forcibly removed from Ocupação Estaiadinha.
In 2013, families were forcibly removed from Ocupação Estaiadinha.
Antonio “Seu” Candido smokes a cigarette in his canvas and adobe house. For the past ten years he has lived in a clandestine settlement in the city of Lençois. A former farm, the property has been occupied by the Landless Movement and about 1,000 people live here.
Antonio “Seu” Candido smokes a cigarette in his canvas and adobe house. For the past ten years he has lived in a clandestine settlement in the city of Lençois. A former farm, the property has been occupied by the Landless Movement and about 1,000 people live here.
A member of the indigenous Pataxó ethnic group guards the entrance to an environmental protection area in the south of the Bahia state. The Pataxós live in areas demarcated by the federal government. There are several Pataxós sects and they remain in permanent dispute with each other over land conflicts.
A member of the indigenous Pataxó ethnic group guards the entrance to an environmental protection area in the south of the Bahia state. The Pataxós live in areas demarcated by the federal government. There are several Pataxós sects and they remain in permanent dispute with each other over land conflicts.
Cacique (Chief) Ran Ran Ran of the Pataxós is among those living in a disputed area. The current government has dedicated the least amount of land for indigenous people of any administration in the past two decades. Twenty-one proposed areas are still awaiting official approval.
Cacique (Chief) Ran Ran Ran of the Pataxós is among those living in a disputed area. The current government has dedicated the least amount of land for indigenous people of any administration in the past two decades. Twenty-one proposed areas are still awaiting official approval.
A woman of the Quilombo ethnic group, who are descendants of African slaves. According to the Federal Constitution of 1988, they have the right to land, but the area dedicated to these groups is very small.
A woman of the Quilombo ethnic group, who are descendants of African slaves. According to the Federal Constitution of 1988, they have the right to land, but the area dedicated to these groups is very small.
The “Copa para o Povo” (Cup for the People) Occupation near the World Cup Stadium in São Paulo, led by the Movement of Homeless Workers. After many protests the group negotiated the purchase of the property for the construction of a popular housing project.
The “Copa para o Povo” (Cup for the People) Occupation near the World Cup Stadium in São Paulo, led by the Movement of Homeless Workers. After many protests the group negotiated the purchase of the property for the construction of a popular housing project.