The authorities in São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest cities, estimate that around 34,000 people are sleeping rough on the streets this year while figures from the Federal University of Minas Gerais put the number closer to 50,000.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic the homeless population has soared more than 31% , and the number of families sleeping rough has more than doubled in the same time period, according to the city council.
With growing numbers of people needing help, the traditional strategies of soup kitchens and shelters are falling short.
So this year the city has come up with a new temporary solution: the micro-house.
The first village of micro-houses was built close to the banks of the Tiete River, in the neighbourhood of Canindé.
Home to one of São Paulo’s original favelas, today the site houses 20 or so families, each living in a little box that looks similar to a shipping container and measures 18 sq m.
A square with a playground gives the area a community feel. Children are playing with toys, their parents sitting on benches and watching on.
The aim is to build a total of 1,000 such houses across the city by the end of the year, housing 4,000 people.
“It’s a way of looking after people based on the well-known international concept of Housing First, offering housing as the first step in helping to get them back on their feet,” explains Carlos Bezerra Junior, who is the social welfare secretary at São Paulo City Hall, which is in charge of the project.
“Traditionally, those who are living on the streets are mostly male with some mental problems and issues with their families,” says Raquel Rolnik, professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of São Paulo.
“Now we are talking about entire families living on the street. So clearly the issue is housing – the idea that the city administration is mobilising to address the topic of housing is good news.”
But, she says, the micro-houses are not a perfect solution.
“There is a lot of criticism about the format, the concentration of tiny homes grouped together in the same place, forming ghettos,” she explains.
She criticises the lack of urban planning and thinks better use could be made of existing, often abandoned, housing to make that habitable too.