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The Unhoused of Humanity

Written by Mirna Wabi-Sabi
Photographed by Fabio Teixeira
Photographic series: "Unhoused people work with recyclable waste and are sick", by Fabio Teixeira. May 17, 2024. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

A Scottish philosopher once wrote, “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link”. Before that, the Basque had probably already coined the proverb, “a thread usually breaks where it is thinnest”. This sentiment is still very much alive today, and it endures for centuries for one simple reason: humanity has weaknesses.

In this dawn of the 3rd millennium, after hundreds of thousands of years humans have roamed this beautiful planet, it’s hard to look around and believe we have been using our abilities to strengthen the links between peoples or to thicken the thread of our humanity.

In fact, to roam the streets of Rio de Janeiro, considered by many one of the most beautiful cities in the world, anyone with a heart must divert their eyes often from things that will fill it with despair. Few things reflect humanity’s repeated failure to evolve more than homelessness. At the age in which wealth and technology shoot through the roof, it’s never been clearer that poverty is not about a lack of resources available.

Brazil’s homeless population has been consistently growing in the last decades, approaching 300 thousand. In Rio, it is said that there are about 8 thousand people living in the streets. News headlines with impressive numbers are always popping up, “Homeless population grows 211% in the last decade”, “Census identifies 7,865 homeless people in the city”, “New government program provides assistance to homeless people”. But to research beyond the headlines, and to engage personally with the subjects reveals a different story.

Firstly, not even half of Brazil’s municipalities count the amount of people who are unhoused in their communities. This means that numbers are wildly inaccurate. Even organizations dedicated to providing services to unhoused populations in Rio de Janeiro, governmental or independent, which are located in areas of the city which are known to have large concentrations of them working or settling, have no significant idea of the numbers, locations and ailments of the people they set out to serve.

Around Rio’s Guanabara Bay, it is well known that groups of unhoused people gather, often sorting through domestic and industrial waste. The photojournalist Fabio Teixeira has documented some of the work these people, who prefer to remain anonymous, have been doing, as well as some of the unsurprising health issues that stem from this paradigm. Specifically, he has observed that informal recycling initiatives, done by people without consistent access to privacy, running water and basic sanitation, leads to an epidemic of eye infections. When faced with the realization that they are losing their sight, they help each other with resources at hand.

Shelters financed by the municipality are not authorized to speak with the press directly. All communication must go through the city hall’s press office, or the ministry of health’s press office. This office has a copy-and-paste response with numbers about the reach of the newest government program focused on the "re-socialization of the homeless population". These programs involve sending nurses, psychologists, and social workers to the so-called “streets”. This is the approach where it is believed that if these people’s minds and bodies are treated, naturally, they will be able to reinsert themselves into society by getting jobs and housing themselves. Reality, however, has shown that being on the street is what causes the vast majority of the psychological and physical ailments in the community, not the other way around. Therefore, the only way to successfully address these health issues is to provide housing first and foremost.

“The main health issues diagnosed by the Consultório na Rua teams [Street Clinic] are sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, HIV, viral hepatitis, issues related to mental health and drug use, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, chronic wounds, among others. And the main situations that directly affect the health conditions of these people are food insecurity, difficulty accessing drinking water, sleep deprivation, exposure to heat, cold or rain.” (Ascom press Office)

By “directly effect” they mean “causes”. The state of being unhoused is the main cause of these health issues, and yet, the solution remains: treating symptoms as they are encountered on the streets.

Independently funded initiatives, NGO’s, are even less equipped to address the root of the issue. One organization dedicated to the “social reintegration of homeless people” in Rio’s city center described their biggest achievement as existing for 8 years, and having won an award once. Reportedly, their biggest obstacle is “fund-raising”, as opposed to achieving what they need the money for. These communication debacles may be indicative of an ugly truth, not about the unhoused, but about the housed. Our cities have human beings who are unsheltered by humanity.

The ‘Secretariat of Social Assistance’ in Rio de Janeiro needs to specify that they are not legally allowed to engage in the “removal” of a homeless person, and that speaks volumes about what kinds of requests they receive from the general public. While much of the housed population approaches the issue of homelessness as if it was waste management, those in the social work field demonstrate shallow understandings of the reality so many Brazilians in extreme poverty face. To approach homelessness outreach as a “re-socialization” project implies that what these people living in the streets need is to learn certain behaviors in order to return to society. In reality, they’ve never left society, they are the most vulnerable link in it.

The unhoused and housed populations are not only sharing spaces in cities, but they are intrinsically connected through the foundation of how our society has been operating. Inaccessible housing is directly tied to the real estate industry and all those who engage with it in order to be housed. The more our society perceives homes as an investment opportunity, as opposed to a basic human necessity in this day and age, the more the unhoused population will grow. And the only reason why this isn’t enough to provoke a shift in this system, is because we, the housed population, have been convincing ourselves that homelessness is a problem caused by the homeless and their behaviors and life choices. Upon further inspection, much of the housed population would realize that almost every waking moment is spent working or thinking about working to keep a roof over our heads, with the exception of those who are born into incredible wealth.

Although individuals may not be able to single-handedly resolve the housing issue in their communities, our society, it’s values as well as its resources, is certainly able to. This will require a long-term and large-scale shift in perspective. In the meantime, the least we can do as individuals is separate organic waste for composting and wash our inorganic domestic waste to prevent infections in people who provide us with the service of informal recycling.

The weak link in this chain of peoples of humanity is perhaps the meritocratic and individualistic values of housed populations in late capitalism – one which washes its hands of any human ties with the unhoused. Next time we ask ourselves, the unhoused population is “whose responsibility?” The answer is, everybody’s. Only then, will the thin thread of our humanity thicken.


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