Clowning is serious business for doctor to homeless in Brazil's 'crackland'
Updated 12 April
In his white doctor's jacket, psychiatrist Flavio Falcone could not get homeless drug addicts to talk.
But costumed as a jester with a bright red nose, he has become an icon in Brazil's "cracolandia," or crackland: a dangerous wasteland of about eight blocks in the historic center of Sao Paulo where addicts twitch and pushers roam.
Falcone puts on gloves in the elevator of the building where he lives as he makes his way to perform as a clown in crackland.
Falcone's patients know him as The Clown, not as a doctor.
He treats a growing number of Brazilians, driven onto the street by the COVID-19 pandemic which has devastated the country's economy. Early government support, a lifeline for many, has also wavered.
Falcone and actress Andrea Macera check on people in crackland. "The street is crowded, the street is bleeding. We are in the worst moment of humanity," said Macera.
"This character represents the exposure of mistakes, of the fragility of what exists in the shadow. The exposure of failures," said Falcone.
"What makes you laugh is the clown that trips, not the clown who walks straight. The people who are on the street are really the failures of capitalist society."
Nego Bala (centre), 23, who was born and raised in crackland, said: "When I was born, crackland already existed. People need to stop blaming who is in crackland. When everyone was born, the evil already existed," Bala said. "Instead of stigmatizing crackland, why don't you invest in humanizing and helping these people?"
Falcone is not your average carnival clown.
Infused with hip-hop street culture, he sports a gold chain and flat brimmed cap and struts the streets followed by a speaker blaring rap.
"Sao Paulo at night, the world is divided in two. Another world that no one wants to see, a world where one cannot distinguish love from evil which comes to life when our city grows dark. Between world and underworld there is no luck and bad luck," said Antonio Carlos Nascimento, 53, known as 'Kawex'.
Working with actress Andrea Macera, Falcone uses the costumes and music to break the ice with the homeless as a first step to getting them the mental health and addiction treatment they need. During "radio" time organized by Falcone and Macera, homeless people in crackland can request songs and even rap along. Around the public square, addicts huddle together and openly light up slim crack pipes.
Left: Jailson Antonio de Oliveira poses for a photograph in his room.
Right: Oliveira shows his wrist which is tattooed with the word 'palhaco' - clown in Portuguese.
His work in the neighborhood since 2012 has earned him a loyal following. One man who received addiction help from Falcone tattooed the word "clown" in Portuguese on his wrist.
With government support receding from crackland, Falcone has tried to fill the void.
Falcone talks to a woman during a medical consultation as part of a project called 'Teto, Trampo e Tratamento' (Roof, Work and Treatment) at Container Theatre in crackland.
In April 2020, one month after the pandemic first hit Brazil, the government closed down a homeless shelter here as part of an effort to clean up the city center to make way for construction. The nearest shelter is about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away.
Falcone and Macera helped find housing for about 20 of those displaced and to distribute 200 tents provided by a Brazilian non-government organization. In late 2020, they launched a new program called "Roof, Work and Treatment" to offer support to the homeless, with funding from the local labor prosecutors' office.
The area known as the "flow" where people buy and use drugs in crackland.
The homeless population has surged after 600 reais ($106.16) per month government emergency aid payments to the poor were reduced and eventually ran out at the end of 2020. After a delay in congressional approval, payments are set to resume this month at an even lower rate.
For many, that help is too little, too late. Millions have sunk into poverty since the start of the year.
Reis and Simoes, 26, talk inside the tent that they live in at Princesa Isabel square.
For Jonatha de David Sousa Reis and Bruna Kelly Simoes, that meant losing their home. The couple moved into a makeshift tent, strung between two trees, on a public square in crackland this year.
"As long as there are no jobs, the emergency payment should have been maintained as it was," Reis, 34, said. "It's been difficult, very difficult."
Tents stand around Princesa Isabel square.
They are arriving on the streets just as COVID-19 hits the deadliest point on record in Brazil. Every week since late February has seen new daily records for deaths from coronavirus.
As soon as next week, Brazil may overtake the U.S. record of 3,285 deaths per day, based on a seven-day average, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.
Reis and Simoes wait in a queue to receive donated food at Princesa Isabel square.
Reis said he hoped to get a job back at the shipping company where he used to work once the pandemic eases, although that seems unlikely to happen soon. Epidemiologists expect the outbreak to worsen in the months to come. Brazil is second to only the United States in deaths and cases.
Gabriella da Silva, 22, prepares coffee as Oliveira kisses her in the room that they live in.
For Jailson Antonio de Oliveira, 51, Falcone is his main lifeline. The clown's philanthropy effort pays for a room for himself and his girlfriend, even if he can no longer afford meat after the emergency payments ran out.
"Today I have a better life because of Flavio Falcone, the clown," said Oliveira, with clown tattooed on his wrist. "He's my right arm, he helps with everything he can."
PHOTO EDITING MARIKA KOCHIASHVILI; WRITING JAKE SPRING; TEXT EDITING RICHARD CHANG; LAYOUT JULIA DALRYMPLE
Lighters are lit up as people smoke crack at the "flow".