Latin America & Caribbean

Invisible Sao Paulo: A Facebook page for the homeless

Screenshot of the SP Invisivel Facebook page Image copyright SP Invisivel

A Facebook page dedicated to homeless people in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has gone viral, helping some reunite with their families and others to start a new life.

Sao Paulo Invisivel (Invisible Sao Paulo) was started in March this year by journalism student Vinicius Lima, 18, and cinema student Andre Soler, 21.

They wanted the 11 million citizens of Brazil's sprawling financial centre to notice the "invisible" people all around them.

The students approached a different homeless person every day and asked them to tell their story of how they got there, before taking a photograph.

It soon attracted thousands of followers, and now more than 139,000 people follow the page with thousands of "likes" and shares for every post.

'Open people's eyes'

"We wanted to open people's eyes, and show them that people who live on the streets are human beings as well, that they have a story and they deserve respect and dignity," Mr Lima says, explaining the idea behind the page.

The students did not initially set out to help homeless people improve their situation but in some cases this been the welcome result.

Bruno, 24, is one of those who was featured on the page. He ended up living on the streets of Sao Paulo two months after moving to the city from the southern state of Parana.

Image copyright SP Invisivel
Image caption Bruno was re-united with his family after they spotted him on the SP Invisivel page

His family spotted him on SP Invisivel and after they travelled to Sao Paulo, Bruno returned to Parana with them.

Another interviewee, Carlos, 33, spoke to the students of his determination to leave the streets four years after kicking a crack cocaine addiction and living crack-free.

The article prompted an offer of help for Carlos to move into a hostel and, more recently, into a rented home of his own.

Last month, the students ran an appeal to find a kidney donor for 13-year-old twins in need of a transplant.

Changing attitudes

Mr Lima says that it is very rare for the homeless to turn down the chance to tell their story and have their picture taken, even in cases where the person is estranged from family members or has had problems with the law.

Image copyright SP Invisivel
Image caption Reinaldo and Pepe, whose homes burned down in a fire, were helped by funds raised by SP Invisivel

Fans of the page have said it has changed their attitudes towards the homeless population of the city.

"It humanises people who we would have kept our distance from, out of fear that something could happen," Sao Paulo resident Luan Drezza says.

"A lot of the time, they have such sad stories, and have had to fight harder than many successful people," the 20-year-old engineering student adds.

"I confess I used to have a lot of prejudice. At the end of the day, Sao Paulo is not the safest of cities and we are worried about our safety all the time."

The idea behind Sao Paulo Invisivel has already spread, with a similar site springing up in Rio de Janeiro.

The students say they themselves were inspired by the success on Facebook of Humans of New York, a blog started by Brandon Stanton telling the stories of ordinary New Yorkers.

Thousands of stories

The difference is that the focus of Sao Paulo Invisivel is exclusively on the city's street population, a group which has had a troubled relationship with the authorities in the past.

Luana Bottini, who is Sao Paulo's policy co-ordinator for people living on the streets, says the page has made a real difference.

Image copyright SP Invisivel
Image caption Luciano says he has noticed that people approach him differently since the Facebook page was started

"I think the Sao Paulo Invisivel page is incredible, it shows that if there are 15,000 people out there, there are 15,000 stories," she says.

"It shows that the 'other' is a citizen too, that we all have a story. It frightens society a bit because people have the fear that this could be them."

It is a fear that is not unfounded as Brazil's homeless population is thought to be growing in size.

Occupations of abandoned buildings and even roundabouts are common, with the housing shortfall in Brazil estimated at 5.8 million and migrants continually arriving in big cities from other parts of Brazil.

'Very cool'

"The last census was in 2011 but we have the impression that the number [15,000] has increased since then," Ms Bottini said.

A new census of the city's homeless population will take place next year. New health centres, shelters and toilet facilities for people living in the streets are also in the pipeline.

"Small gestures can make a difference," Ms Bottini adds. "Just looking someone in the eyes and saying 'Good morning' helps."

Street dweller Luciano, 36, who featured on the page in September, agrees.

He says he has already seen a difference in people's attitudes since the Facebook page started. "People have started to show a bit more respect," he said. "It's very cool."

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