São Paulo’s Ambitious ‘Crackland’ Program Sees Results

Cracolandia de Bracos Abertos

Paticipants in the 'De Braços Abertos' program

As mentioned in previous posts, São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad has implemented a unique approach to combating crack use in a run-down area of the city center.

The program, “De Braços Abertos” (With Open Arms) provides housing, food and work opportunities -- mainly trash pickup in the Luz neighborhood known as Cracolândia (Crackland) -- to some 400 drug users who had previously lived on the streets there. Giving up drug use is not a condition for participating, though participants are encouraged to do so and have greater access to addiction treatment therapy.  It was inspired by the success of similar programs in the Netherlands and Canada.

Now, seven months since De Braços Abertos began, the mayor’s office claims the program is starting to show results. According to city officials, while participants largely continue to use crack cocaine the intensity of their use has dropped significantly, with daily usage down roughly 50 to 70 percent, and concentrated mostly during evening hours. They have also benefited from a drastically increased quality of life as result of the housing and access to health care.

This piece was originally published on the Pan American Post. You can read it here.

On top of a June visit from the UK’s Prince Harry, the achievements of the program have earned the Haddad administration some unexpected praise from São Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin, who has championed a controversial forced drug treatment program that is in many ways the opposite of De Braços Abertos. In remarks to the press on August 4, the governor called the city program “highly laudable.”

As O Jornal do Brasil reports, on August 5 Haddad held a press conference to present 16 participants with “carteiras de trabalho” (employment record books, necessary for obtaining formal work in the country) and announced that they had been hired by a municipal contractor to work as cleaners in welfare assistance offices around the city.

They will be moved from the motels they are being housed in now to other areas in São Paulo, namely in the Liberdade and Pari neighborhoods. As a result of their formal employment, the group will receive a minimum wage of about $362 per month, plus subsidies for transportation and food costs.

The 16 were part of a select group of 18 participants who were deemed ready for full employment after undergoing psychiatric evaluations, out of an initial sample of 40. Two of these apparently turned down the job offers. According to Estadão, city officials say the 16 will be the first to take part in a new city program, called “Autonomia em Foco” (Autonomy in Focus). Social Assistance Secretary Luciana Temer told the paper that the city is looking to expand this program by 220 spaces, though she did not say whether all of these will come with formal employment offers.

A statement from the city’s press office claims that the priority of Autonomia em Foco is to “remove [individuals] from the Luz neighborhood, where there is still a concentration of drug use,” though the new program will also be open to people who have not participated in De Braços Abertos. It makes no mention of guaranteed employment for participants.

Ultimately, the fact that the city is opening up permanent employment prospects for those who have benefited from De Braços Abertos can only be seen as a positive development. But the absence of a clear long-term plan to deal with the majority of locals in Cracolândia is sure to fuel criticism from social and health workers in the area. Many of these --- as I have noted for InSight Crime -- see the program as a temporary facelift of the neighborhood at best, and at worst as a mere band-aid for the much deeper problem of systemic societal neglect.

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Geoffrey Ramsey is a digital communications officer for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He previously worked as a researcher and writer for InSight Crime, a think-tank dedicated to tracking organized crime and corruption in the Americas, and was author of the Pan American Post.