by Melissa Costa
- USA / Brazil -
Regina sings to loud Brazilian country music while her skillful hands turn old Santa Claus hats into dresses and pieces of beverage cans into ornaments. Immersed in nostalgia, Regina relives her difficult past, drawing inspiration from her life to create art.
“When I was fifteen days old my parents left me in an orphanage in Botafogo (Rio de Janeiro),” she recounts. At 12, she was adopted by a woman who mistreated her, and soon after, she ran away to escape the abuse.
Regina’s story of homelessness is a common reality for a growing number of people in Brazil: although employed, her salary was so low she could not afford housing. The Brazilian Ministry of Social Development estimates that 70.9% of the people living on the country’s streets have jobs; very few of them beg for money.
In 2007 and 2008, the Ministry interviewed 31,922 homeless adults in 71 cities. The research showed that alcoholism and drug addiction (35.5%), unemployment (29.8%), and family problems (29.1%) are the primary causes of the country’s homelessness. But the Brazilian government does not provide a census of the total number of people living on the streets, making it difficult to establish both the scope of the epidemic and effective programs to help address it.
The number of homeless in Brazil increases each year as those in search of a better life migrate from poorer areas to the country’s overcrowded metropolitan areas, where unemployment rates are high and there is greater economic disparity. Many poor people look to urban areas for public healthcare assistance, which is supposedly almost free of charge, but the Brazilian public healthcare system lacks the funds needed to serve such huge numbers. It is understaffed, chaotic and obsolete.
Brazil’s major cities like Sao Paulo have acknowledged the homeless problem by creating shelters, but according to Diocene de Oliveira Francisco, a social worker and coordinator at Rede Rua Association, there are still not enough places for the increasing number of people on the streets.
“In big cities almost half of the [homeless] who go to shelters do not get a place.” She says every day Sao Paulo has an estimated 4,000 homeless people whom the shelters cannot accommodate.
Others, like Regina, refuse to live in shelters. “The rich ladies thought that I had a place to live,” she explains. “I never wanted to stay at their houses because I wanted freedom.”
“Many people have difficulty following the shelter’s rules,” says de Oliviera Francisco. “Drug addiction, mental problems and lack of family ties make it hard for the homeless to come to a place with a lot of people, rules and [an authority figure].”
If not engaged in prostitution or drug traffic, most women living on the streets who are mentally and physically healthy are employed as house cleaners, recycling workers or in other such informal jobs. However, many of them deal with physical violence and sexual abuse, something Regina knows well. “In Brazil there is a lot of violence. That’s what I learned on the streets: you have eyes, but you don’t see anything; you have a mouth but you don’t say anything; you have ears, but you don’t hear anything. That’s why I survived,” she says.
She remembers being beaten by a police officer just a few months after having her first child “because he was disappointed seeing me go to a club with a bunch of prostitutes.” As an apology, he gave Regina a doll, which she gave to her daughter.
The father of Regina’s daughter was in the military and embarrassed at having impregnated a homeless woman, offering no support and denying the baby’s paternity. But her daughter’s birth was a turning point in her life and Regina decided that she would not raise her child on the streets. Psychologist Josiane Buratto says it is common in Brazil for homeless women to get off the streets after having children. “Becoming a mother influenced Regina’s will to not let her story be repeated by her daughter,” she explains.
Not long after, Regina’s old friend became sick. She rushed to the hospital to be at his side and received the most surprising news of her life. The man who had taken care of her for all these years on the streets was her biological father.
“He was embarrassed to tell me that he and my mother—she died when I was seven—were both homeless. When he left me at the orphanage, he used to go everyday to check on me playing in the playground. When he saw me on the streets, he got very upset and decided to be the father he couldn’t be years ago,” she says. But Regina didn’t have much time to ask about her parents’ life and where they came from. He died soon after.After ten years of homelessness and shocked by her father’s death, Regina knew she had to make a change. At the age of 25, she rented a cheap house for her in the Dona Marta slum of Rio de Janeiro where she met her husband, with whom she had seven children and ultimately divorced.
Eventually Regina moved her children to Vidigal – a poor neighborhood controlled by the drug traffic malady that is Rio’s reality. But there, Regina was inspired by the hope that Carnival brings to the city’s lower class. Working as a volunteer at Sao Clemente Samba School, she learned how to sew and do embroidery.
When she was in her mid-forties, Regina was invited by a former employer to live with them in the United States. Recognizing the offer as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide stable support for her family, she moved to Maryland to work as a housekeeper. When Regina left Brazil, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law took in her children. Her oldest child, Sandra Maria, was in her twenties and her youngest, Luis Felipe, was just nine. “The youngest was the one who was most sad. He didn’t talk to me for a year.” Regina left Brazil with debts that she was able to pay off from the States, but it was hard being apart from her children. “At the beginning, every time I would call, [we] would cry for a while,” she recounts.
One day while at an arts and craft store she saw a row of dolls waiting to be painted and dressed. Regina bought one and then another. Nowadays, Regina takes her dolls to exhibitions at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, and other cultural events. “Here, I can show people who I truly am because of my work [doll making],” she says.
Regina has found her place in the U.S. and is content. She holds a green card and is finally preparing for her first trip back to Brazil in 21 years, but she says, “I don’t want to go back to Brazil [to live] -just to visit.” She knows she was one of the lucky few to make it out of a life of poverty back home.
Holding old pictures of her children taken before she left Brazil, she says: “after 21 years, things have probably changed a lot.”
About the Author
Melissa Costa is a Brazilian student of journalism at the University of the District of Columbia, in Washington D.C. In addition to writing for the Brazilian press, Melissa nurtures a passion for literature and has received awards in Brazil for two short stories Lilies from Mansion Number 21 and A Nostalgic Wind.