Imagine yourselves living in complete darkness. Image that in your house, from where you can see an enormous pile of garbage, you wouldn’t be able to preserve food, watch TV or charge your phone. Imagine yourselves giving a bath to your children outside on the patio because you haven’t had access to any water or electricity in months. Imagine what it would be like if they wouldn’t be able to go to school or if you couldn’t tell anybody where you lived for fear of being discriminated. Finally imagine that one day, without any previous warning or legal notice, that same house, the only shelter you have, would be demolished and no alternative presented to you. We invite you to put yourself in our shoes, even if just for one day, and envision the feeling of being treated as sewage to be put away.
As residents of self-built and relocation neighbourhoods in the Metropolitan Area of Lisbon, we have decided to address you this open letter in an attempt to denounce our living conditions and ensure that both these and other similar situations like ours cease to exist. We take the liberty of writing to you seeing as to this day neither City Councils nor the State (both entities responsible for housing affairs) have been able to provide dignified solutions for our communities. All of us are confined to these spaces, under daily discrimination inside and outside of our own homes, with no dignified living conditions or water, electricity or sanitation. Moreover we are not taken into account in any major decisions that affect our daily lives and existence – in short, we are not treated as human beings. The right to adequate housing seems to be nothing but a dream to us.
Despite it all we attempt to go about our daily lives with dignity, namely through the hard labour we take as our breadwinner as well as a joint, solidary and community-based living, built over many years of struggle. The truth is that for many decades we have resided either in self-build areas where we give a social use to abandoned buildings and spaces, or in relocation council neighbourhoods where we struggle to survive collectively. This is where we live, celebrate births and weddings and mourn, together. However, similarly to many other neighbourhoods all across the country, we face incredibly dramatic situations that urge to be resolved.
At Bairro 6 de Maio (located in Venda Nova, municipality of Amadora) since 2015 and particularly since October 2016 the City Council has performed eviction and demolition operations without any previous notice and without providing a worthy alternative for the families which are excluded from PER (Special Relocation Programme, whose surveys were conducted between 1993 and 1995). As a consequence many families with children, elderly and disabled people have been dislodged, while other are under threat of being evicted at any moment. The only solution presented by both the City Council and Social Security System so far has been a temporary (15 days to 1 month) lodging in transitory shelters. Some of us who dared to question these proceedings have been beat up by the Police.
At Bairro da Torre (located in Camarate, municipality of Loures) on October 19th 2016, shortly after the inauguration of MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology), the electricity company EDP (Energias de Portugal) shut down the power grid with no previous notice, which resulted in 70 families having no access to electrical energy and thus no heating or illumination. Despite the City Council having provided two generators, after the diesel provided was finished we couldn’t afford to buy more fuel regularly and ended up once more with no electricity. In fact the City Council’s intervention has constituted a masked resolution to the problem. Moreover around one third of the residents has not had access to water supply for many years – thus surviving both without electricity nor water.
At Bairro da Jamaika (located in Amora, municipality of Seixal) around 215 families live in precarious conditions due to the extreme humidity in the buildings, the lack of a proper sanitation systems and the frequent flooding in the basements, which put the structure of the buildings at risk. In 2015 the City Council informed the residents that they should begin to pay for the use of electricity which had until then been obtained through a public-owned power grid. This agreement was formalised in January 2016 and the supply of electricity began in April. However, EDP has refused to elaborate individual contracts, rather entering into collective contracts with the Residents Committee. According to EDP and the City Council, the Residents Committee would split the cost of the bills among the various residents. However, this was a process that the Residents Committee was left to lead on their own, resulting in serious conflicts and obstructing the payment of the electrical bills. This resulted in EDP sending several warnings of power outage, after which EDP sued the Residents Committee, demanding the payment of a bulky sum that was computed from this unresolved impasse.
At Bairro da Quinta da Fonte (in Apelação, municipality of Loures) the social houses, albeit relatively recent, have got structural issues such as humidity and splits on the walls, reflecting the poor quality of the materials of construction and maintenance. The fact that large families cannot be distributed between more than one house has led to housing over-occupancy. Recently over 150 residents have signed an open letter requesting improvement of housing conditions that was delivered to the housing city councillor. Furthermore several women with children have been expelled from their squatted homes without previous notice and under the careful watch - and many timesoften contempt - of the Police.
Imagine yourselves living on the streets with your children: if you found a vacant house, would you remain in the streets or would you rather occupy it?
We, as people and citizens, are invisible, since our situation – being precarious workers or sick people who have been evacuated with no possibility to rent a house on the private market – seems to go unnoticed by other inhabitants in the city. Also the violent Police operations in our neighbourhoods remain unpunished and ignored by the Media. Most of these Media reports portray our neighbourhoods as “illegal” or “problematic”, as focuses of drug and gun trafficking (among other crimes), thus feeding a negative and stereotyped image of the places we live in. Over the years we have always welcomed in our homes journalists who want to get to know our communities, our history and our living conditions. However, in many cases the Media still reinforces the discrimination and stigmatization we face every day, in a way legitimizing the violence that strikes us.
Nevertheless, in recent times a few well-known representatives of both national and international organisations have denounced this violation of fundamental rights. In August 2016, the Ombudsman has given a recommendation to the Government about the ceasing of the demolitions and the revision of the PER, considering it to be an instrument “manifestly out-dated” which has implicated improper proceedings. In December 2016, at the end of an official visit to Portugal, the Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations on the Right to Adequate Housing, Water and Basic Sanitation have also pronounced themselves about the forced evictions, which they classified as a violation of international human rights. They also alerted for the right to adequate housing, water and sanitation and recommended to the State the definition of explicit legal measures that resulted in the fulfilling of basic human rights.
According to article 65 in the Portuguese Constitution, “everyone has a right, to themselves and their family, to housing of adequate dimensions and conditions of hygiene and comfort which preserves their personal intimacy and family privacy”. Also, article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contemplates the right of any person to the respect of their private and family life, of their home and correspondence. Recently the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs has stated that Portugal “has been an unconditional advocate at the Council of Human Rights” – which does not link with what has been happening in our neighbourhoods.
Faced with this situation, we, as residents of the above mentioned neighbourhoods who are aware of our rights as citizens, reclaim the right to a better life and dignified housing conditions. This means we have the right to be relocated in proper conditions, in dialogue with the responsible authorities and with respect to community and neighbouring ties, considering the possibility of relocation in the same area if we wish to remain there. About this we would like to point out that land expropriation is possible under the PER and that some of those lands are public-owned. We reclaim the right not to accept a house which we do not want, as we consider relocation under blackmail to be an authoritative form of relocation. At a time when authorities are discussing a revision of the PER, we also reclaim the right to be informed about what is going to happen to us. More importantly, we reclaim the right to take part in the development of solutions. We wish them to be thought out critically and in collaboration with the affected communities. We wish them to be new solutions, not just the ones carried out until now, that is, we wish for a real housing policy that truthfully meets our needs. We do not wish to be relocated in new ghettos, far from urban centres and distant from our working places. We do not wish a PER like the previous one. We wish to be rehoused with dignity and treated with the respect that every human being is entitled to.
This letter is the beginning of a new cycle of struggle – a joint battle of citizens under inhumane housing conditions. As residents of self-built and council houses we aim to call your attention not only to what has happened to us but also to what is happening all over the country to people whose salaries are not enough to meet all economic dimensions of their lives – especially the cost of housing. We fight not only for ourselves but also together with and for everyone, for until our society realises how the wrongness and perversity of this situation it will be very difficult to make any significant changes.
Lisbon, 28th March 2017
Neighbourhoods Residents Assembly
6 de Maio (Amadora)
Bairro da Torre (Loures)
Bairro da Jamaika (Seixal)
Quinta da Fonte (Loures)
With the support of:
Habita – Association for the Right to Housing and the City
Gestual – Group of Socioterritorial Studies and Local Action of the Faculty of Architecture (UL)
Chão – Urban Ethnography Workshop
Parochy of Camarate
Lisbon Diocesan Secretariat of the Roma Pastoral