Pandemic and social vulnerability: the situation of the homeless people in Brazil
Author: Angela Aparecida Roncetti Souza
As emergency shelters and encampments emerge across Brazilian cities, the public has been confronted with a more visible homeless population as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The homeless people situation in Brazil has not been a recent phenomenon, but a situation that originated in the process of industrialization1 that occurred between the years of 1930 to 1980. However, historical causes2 have been identified for the permanence of populations in extreme poverty in Brazil, with strong rates of social, economic, and political differences that endanger the democratization of society (Fiorati, et al, 2014).
Regardless of the precarious condition that this group has always experienced, the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more dramatic, accentuating the inequality and exposing a large number of people to a precarious situation.
According to data collected by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA)3 released in March 2020, in Brazil, before the start of the pandemic, more than 222,000 people were living homeless. Nonetheless this number being gigantic, it does not represent a concrete number, once this research only considered the number of people who filled in some data on some of the government’s social programs. (IPEA, 2020)
In Brazil, the homeless population is characterized as a heterogeneous population group that has in common extreme poverty, interrupted or weakened family ties, and the inexistence of regular conventional housing (Brazil, 2009).4
Outside of the Government and society’s eyes, the Brazilian homeless population is currently living in an extremely inhumane, precarious, and completely stigmatized scenario. Excluded from almost every statistic, this population seems not to be counted even on the ruler that measures the dimension of the pandemic in the country (Assunção, 2021). This public invisibility, where many become imperceptible to society’s eyes, ends up leading to the people’s “exclusion” of the world, transforming the individual into an invisible person in the social environment. And that’s the moment when they turn out losing their essence as a subject of rights.
This historical invisibility, therefore, seems to have worsened in the biggest health emergency of the century. Across the country, the calculation of the number of homeless people infected by the new coronavirus is only based on data shared by some social equipment, such as “Clinic on the Street” (Consultório na Rua)5 or “Centro Pop”6(Assunção, 2020).
Furthermore, it is interesting to emphasize that on a national level, there wasn’t a single action concerning this population since the beginning of the pandemic, which led to each city the responsibility for putting together its own strategy (Satie, 2021).
Amidst all the numerous and robust challenges that arise in the face of this overwhelming crisis, the impossibility of properly facing the crisis by these individuals constitutes a tragedy in itself. In a society severely marked by inequality, as is the case in Brazil, this issue reaches alarming proportions.
Covid-19 and Human Rights Violation
In Brazil, the protection of the homeless population is regulated by decree number 7,053. Also known as the National Policy for the Homeless People7, the decree has as its core concepts the respect for the dignity of the human person, the respect for life and citizenship, as well as the respect for the differences (article 15). Such concepts, which are similar to the ideals preached by the Brazilian Constitution8 (articles 1st, 3rd, and 5th), are also analogous to those brought by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 19489 (article 25, I), the most prominent legislation regarding human rights:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control (UNITED NATIONS, 1948).
However, for those who make the streets their home, these rights become even more distant, often non-existent, leading to a reality completely distinct from what is explicitly or implicitly represented in the national Constitution or international legislation.
Consequently, universal rights such as water use and obtaining food are constant challenges for those who live and survive in public places. While it should be a fundamental right guaranteed to everyone, these rights are sublimated and are now further exacerbated. The failure to recognize their rights puts this population in an increasingly vulnerable situation. As rights are interdependent and indivisible, the violation of one affects the other, generating inequities and harming health, which are important constitutional rights for human survival (De Paula, et al, 2020).
“Unfortunately, the homeless population is not a priority to the [Brazilian] government” – Rosângela Nascimento
In an interview conducted by Global Human Rights Defence with the Coordinator of the National Movement for Homeless People (MNPR), Rosângela Nascimento exposed that the homeless population in Brazil has not been a priority for the government. The same understanding was shown by a study carried out by Honorato and Oliveira10 in the beginning of 2020, which stated that no guidance was given by the federal government on care and actions strategies to deal with this population, despite the evident risk of contamination and transmission of the virus (Honorato, Oliveira, 2020).
In the same context, the aforementioned research indicates that most of the initiatives taken in the municipalities do not come from official orders of the municipal government, but from the professionals themselves, who, working on the front line with the homeless population, individually researched measures and care necessary to prevent contamination, in order to meet the specific demands of this population (Honorato, Oliveira, 2020).
Taking into account this scenario, we can verify almost the complete inefficiency of the measures carried out by the Government since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
“In a national level, the homeless population was put out of the priority group to get the vaccine” – Rosângela Nascimento
Rosângela also brought another great problem that the homeless population has been facing during the pandemic: the access to vaccination. According to Rosângela, at the national level, the homeless population was put outside the priority group for access to the vaccine, which demanded an intense mobilization from the National Movement for Homeless People (MNPR) with the regional governments so they could be included as priority groups, and now vaccinated.
“It’s not just about arriving in political spaces and talk about the suffering of those in the streets […], it’s about debating and discussing inclusive public policies that meet the needs of the homeless population” – Rosângela Nascimento
In conclusion, it can be verified that homelessness not only indicates a State failure to guarantee access to safe, affordable, and adequate housing for all, but it violates as well a number of other human rights (OHCHR, 2021), requiring positive measures by the States to prevent and eliminate it. In this way, we can point that the main assistance needed for this specific group is the implementation of social programs, attempting to rescue dignity, and the full exercise of their citizenship (Santos, 2018).
Assunção, C. (2020, september 9th). Brasil não sabe quantas pessoas em situação de rua foram contaminadas pela covid-19. Rede Brasil Atual. Retrieved on June 22nd, 2021, on https://www.redebrasilatual.com.br/cidadania/2020/09/pessoas-situacao-de-rua-contaminadas-covid-19/.
Decree number 7.053. (2019). Institui a Política Nacional para a População em Situação de Rua e seu Comitê Intersetorial de Acompanhamento e Monitoramento, e dá outras providências. Brasília. Retrieved on June 15th, 2021 on http://www.mds.gov.br/webarquivos/legislacao/assistencia_social/decreto/decreto_7053.pdf.
Dos Santos, M. P. (2018). Um olhar sobre os sujeitos envolvidos na política municipal de atendimento à população em situação de rua de Vitória: caminhos para a reinserção social. Master thesis, Vitória School of Law, Vitória, ES, Brazil.
Fiorati, R. C., Carretta, R. Y. D., Kebbe, L. M., Xavier, J. J. S., & Lobato, B. C. (2014). Inequalities and social exclusion among homeless people: a Brazilian study. Am Int J Social Sci, 3(6), 5-14.
Honorato, B. E. F., & Oliveira, A. C. S. (2020). Homeless population and COVID-19. Revista de Administração Pública, 54, 1064-1078.
IPEA. (2020). População em Situação de Rua em Tempos de Pandemia: Um Levantamento de Medidas Municipais Emergenciais. Retrieved on July 1st, 2021 on
Paula, H. C. D., Daher, D. V., Koopmans, F. F., Faria, M. G. D. A., Lemos, P. F. S., & Moniz, M. D. A. (2020). No place to shelter: ethnography of the homeless population in the COVID-19 pandemic. Revista Brasileira de Enfermagem, 73.
Satie, A. (2021, January 13th). Mais mulheres e crianças engrossam população de rua, diz padre Julio Lancelotti. CNN Brasil. Retrieved on June 27th, 2021 on https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/nacional/2021/01/13/especialistas-veem-aumento-de-populacao-de-rua-mas-nao-ha-dados-oficiais.
United Nations. (1946). Universal declaration of human rights. Retrieved on June 17th, 2021 on https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
United Nations. (2021). Homelessness and human rights. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Retrieved on June 15th, 2021 in https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/housing/pages/homelessnessandhumanrights.aspx.
- In the authors’ opinion, the deterioration of the labor market, the weakening of work relationships, and continuing unemployment can be listed as the origin of an increase in those social segments that show conditions of exclusion, boosting the generation of the extreme poverty that we see now.
The authors list the strong rates of social, economic, and political differences as the main historical causes for the permanence of this population in such a misfortune place.
The Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) is a public institution that provides technical support to the federal government with regard to public policies: fiscal, social and economic. Additional information about the research can be found in the following website: https://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/images/stories/PDFs/nota_tecnica/200612_nt_disoc_n_73.pdf (In Portuguese).
A População em situação de rua no brasil é delimitada pelo decreto 7056/09, podendo ser acessado no seguinte link: (In portuguese)
Clinic on the Street is an action instituted based on the National Primary Care Policy, and its objective is to expand the access of the homeless to health services.
Cento Pop is a Brazilian specialized center for the homeless population where they can have access to basic health care.
Available at http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2007-2010/2009/decreto/d7053.htm (In Portuguese).
Available https://www.oas.org/es/sla/ddi/docs/acceso_informacion_base_dc_leyes_pais_b_1_en.pdf (In English and at http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/constituicao/constituicao.htm (In Portuguese).