Sao Paulo homeless face choice between cold and virus risk

Homeless people sleep outside the Cathedral amid the spread of the new coronavirus in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, May 7, 2020. According to the Sao Paulo municipal office of social assistance and welfare, at least 22 homeless people have died of COVID-19 in the past few weeks. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Brazil’s biggest homeless population has begun succumbing to COVID-19, and activists warn the worst is yet to come as colder weather bears down and shelters risk becoming hotbeds for infection.

At least 22 homeless people in Sao Paulo have died from COVID-19 so far, according to City Hall, and there are hundreds of suspected cases throughout the state, both on the streets and in shelters. Júlio Lancellotti, a 71-year-old priest, said nothing he’s seen these people face in three decades compares to the hardship he expects from the new pandemic — not economic turmoil, waves of violence nor dengue fever.

“I have the feeling this will be our biggest challenge, and the most difficult part isn’t even here yet,” Lancellotti told The Associated Press.

Sao Paulo’s homeless population exploded in recent years, with official figures soaring to nearly 25,000 last year, up 60% from 2015. Brazil’s long-lasting economic crisis and cuts to social programs pitched thousands into the streets of the country’s richest city. Then came the coronavirus.

On Sunday, Lancellotti welcomed dozens of them into his parish in eastern Sao Paulo. “These are the most vulnerable people of all. No hygiene, social isolation or access to handouts,” he said. “They go to shelters that have infected beds.”

City Hall’s announcement of nearly two dozen deaths among those living on the streets drew outcry, but Lancellotti and other social workers believe those figures are underestimated — as are Brazil’s figures in general. Latin America’s hardest-hit nation officially counts more than 11,000 deaths by the virus.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems.

Eight of the homeless victims had preexisting conditions and none died in shelters, local authorities said. Sao Paulo has two shelters for suspected COVID-19 cases, with 40 residents in total. There are another 10 centers for the homeless in general with more than 4,400 beds, about one quarter of which are newly installed for use during the pandemic.

Marco Antonio, 45, said he won’t be seeking refuge any time soon. He sells recyclables that he wheels around all day in a shopping cart and, since the outbreak began, he has been wearing gloves and a mask. And he’ll share sleeping space with no more than four neighbors.

“I used to stay at a shelter, but it is too many people, 400 people together. That is not viable. It is easier to get it (coronavirus) there,” he said.

His concern about shelters isn’t unfounded. In the city of Sao Jose do Rio Preto, 270 miles (440 kilometers) north, 27 homeless people tested positive for COVID-19 at the Casa do Cirineu shelter for almost 100 residents.

Yet as winter draws near in the Southern Hemisphere, homeless people in Sao Paulo may have no choice but to move into shelters, said Robson Mendonça, the head of a homeless movement. Once that happens, risk of contagion will grow substantially.

“Most of them have nothing but one change of clothing,” Mendonça said. “If they clean up, they will wear the same clothes. How can they not be infected? How can they avoid infecting others?”