Cold snap leaves Brazilian authorities scrambling to support homeless population

A fierce cold snap is bearing down on homeless people in Brazil, and authorities, activists and religious leaders are doing what they can to limit suffering on the streets.

Temperatures have dropped below freezing mark in parts of southern Brazil

Marcio tries to stay warm in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday. A cold snap has seen temperatures fall below the freezing mark in parts of the country, leaving people who live on the streets struggling to stay warm and safe. (Marcelo Chello/The Associated Press)

A fierce cold snap is bearing down on homeless people in Brazil, and authorities, activists and religious leaders are doing what they can to limit suffering on the streets.

Temperatures in some areas of southern Brazil have dropped below freezing, and dozens of cities received snow and freezing rain.

That's especially worrisome this year, after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated homelessness by punishing Brazil's job market, and the federal government diminished welfare spending that was a lifeline in 2020.

Brazil's most populous state, Sao Paulo, on Thursday donated 7,500 blankets and 1,000 sleeping bags to organizations that help people who are homeless.

The cold snap led to snow in some parts of Brazil this week — as shown on the partially snow-covered road to Sao Joaquim, Brazil, on Thursday. (Mycchel Legnaghi/The Associated Press)

Authorities also transformed one of the state capital's subway stations into a shelter with capacity for 400 people, where they are receiving soup.

The nation's biggest metropolis on Friday recorded its lowest temperature in five years, 4.4 C, according to the national meteorological institute. It was the second-lowest temperature in more than two decades.

Hard to cope with cold

Maria Madalena Dutra, 36, was among those who shivered through the night on Sao Paulo's streets as she slept atop blankets beneath a makeshift tarp.

Dutra, whose day labour as a maid dried up during the pandemic, said she found no vacancy at a shelter.

Homeless people improvise a bonfire to try to keep warm during a cold night in Sao Paulo on Thursday. A fierce cold snap on Wednesday night prompted snowfall in southern Brazil, where such weather is rare. (Marcelo Chello/The Associated Press)

"Last night, the cold was so bad that we lit a lighter in our hands to warm up, but it didn't do anything. Yesterday was painful," she said downtown on Thursday. "The temperature isn't the only problem. Things get worse when it's cold, windy and raining at the same time."

Rev. Julio Lancellotti, a prominent Catholic priest, posted a photo to social media on Wednesday of a dozen people laid out on mats on the floor of his parish.

They moved to a shelter set up by city hall on Thursday.

Cold days still ahead

Low temperatures are expected to endure through the weekend before rising gradually, according to the meteorological institute.

Areas of higher altitude in Brazil's southern region could see temperatures plunge as low as –10 C. The wind chill makes the frigid air even more intolerable.

A man lights a bonfire to keep warm in Sao Paulo on Thursday night. (Marcelo Chello/The Associated Press)

State governments have stocked gymnasiums with donated bedding. Parana state started distributing tens of thousands of blankets and set up temporary shelters. The government of the southernmost Rio Grande do Sul state was holding a blanket drive on Friday.

Christian Braga, founder of the non-profit Group of Social Attitude that provides food and blankets to the homeless in Sao Paulo, estimates there are twice as many people on the streets this year as a result of the pandemic. He began collecting blankets from friends in 2016, when four people died from the cold.

"It seems paradoxical, people dying of cold in a tropical city of a tropical nation like Brazil," he said. "It shows how we have failed as a society in bringing together efforts to solve the problems."