Radical change of approach gives hope to crack users in Sao Paulo

In January 2012, they called it “Operação Sufoco” (Operation Suffocate): the military police and municipal guard stormed the area for long known as “cracolândia”, throwing gas bombs and firing rubber bullets at the homeless, crack users that have populated the area since the early 90s, in an effort to either make them move elsewhere or sign up for drug treatment programs. However, with insufficient structure (the drug treatment centres were not even up and running at the time of the operation), bad planning and a total lack of coordination between the military police, the municipal guard and the judiciary system, the operation was declared a failure.

Two years down the line, the situation at “cracolândia” is still the same, with hundreds of homeless, crack users living in the streets. But it seems that the authorities have realised that the old “pain and suffering” (this was actually the official moto of the 2012 Operation) approach is not going to help with the problem. Last week, the mayor of Sao Paulo Fernando Haddad launched a new initiative, this time called “Operação Braços Abertos” (Operation Open Arms).

If in 2012 the aim was to “clear” the area, this time the focus is on offering social improvements to the crack users, regardless their use of the drug (all previous offers of benefits were based on the condition of abstinence/treatment). The operation is tackling, in specific, a population of around 300 people, whom had recently built their shacks in one particular sector within the “cracolândia” area.

The residents of the recently formed “favela” are being asked to leave their shacks (which will subsequently put down) and offered a room in one of the 5 hotels contracted by the local authority. They will have access to health care, receive 3 meals a day and have access to the opportunity to make R$15 (the equivalent of about £$) a day by working with the street cleaning team and attending training programs. Close friends, partners and relatives are offered shared accommodation, while single individuals have a room of their own. According to the local authority, the cost per person is of around R$ 1,017 (about £250) per month, the equivalent of 1.5 times the minimum wage.

Over 180 council staff will be working on the program, which also counts with the support of the NGO União Social Brasil Gigante (Giant Brasil Social Union). Agents of the municipal guard who have gone through a special training program to deal with drug users will also be assigned to the area.

Some critics say that the program is limited in capacity (numbers vary but it is believed that over a thousand crack users either live or frequent the area regularly), while traditional media and conservative sectors of society insist that there is no hope for those who live in the “cracolândia” without forced medical intervention. Others still believe in the route of criminalisation of the drug user, that instead of being given a room, they should be sent to the already super populated prison system.

In the other hand, many sectors of the civil society have showed support for Haddad’s initiative. For the director of the “Centro Brasileiro de Informações sobre Drogas” (Brazilian Centre of Information for Drugs), Doctor Elisaldo Carlini, this is the “most humane approach ever seen”. In a recent interview to Terra.com, Carlini said that the program “has the advantage of treating individuals as individuals, taking into consideration their own moral principles and circumstances.”   

Rede Pense Livre”, an independent organization formed by over 70 young leading figures from various sectors of society, issued a note of support for the program. “This is an important change in approach, based in previous experiences that were successful elsewhere and in scientific information about crack use dynamics, mostly gathered in a recent research carried out by Fundação Oswaldo Cruz” (last year, the FIOCRUZ interviewed over 25 thousand people, in the most comprehensive scientific research about crack use ever carried out in the country).       

As the mayor of São Paulo himself admitted, “this is not a problem that we will solve overnight”. However, the initiative of looking at it from a different angle, and the courage to implement new ways of dealing with such a complex problem, should be supported by the public, as with all public policies, the subjects of it are not the only ones to be affected by them. Society, as a whole, can only gain from governments that treat citizens with respect, regardless their social status, caring for their well being, health and safety.