A multipurpose aid center has been opened up in Sao Paulo to provide care for hundreds of drug users and street squatters. The move comes two months after police shut down a thriving downtown crack cocaine market.
A little more than two years before Brazil's largest city is due to host the opening game of the 2014 World Cup, authorities made good on a promise to assist a large street population in so-called "Cracolandia," a 10-block central area of dilapidated buildings.
Sao Paulo state Governor Geraldo Ackmin said the modern complex would provide health care, and social and psychological aid, to more than 1,200 people daily. The complex also includes dormitories, a reading room, games and gardening activities.
Scores of health professionals will be on hand 24 hours a day. There is room for 20 children and adolescents, as well as 120 beds for men.
A separate unit will provide care for nearly 300 drug users four days a week.
Brazilian Health Minister Alexandre Padilha hailed the complex as a demonstration of the need for a close partnership between federal, state and city actors to combat the country's crack epidemic.
"Isolated action in whatever sector, whatever level of government will not succeed in defeating this epidemic which contaminates Brazil, our state, our city," he added.
Padilha, who said the federal government provided 30 million reais (16.5 million dollars) for the complex, emphasized that the battle requires a combination "of prevention, care and repression."
State and federal police "must be rigorous in the repression of crack use and traffickers," he added.
Some 300 military police officers swept into Cracolandia in January to close an open-air market selling crack -- a cheap cocaine derivative -- and remove hundreds of addicts, squatters and drug dealers.
The move came after federal authorities in December announced plans to combat a nation-wide "crack epidemic" with a $2.2 billion plan focusing on prevention, medical treatment and a crackdown on trafficking.
Between 2003 and 2011, the number of cases of "chemical dependency" in Brazil has increased tenfold, hitting groups and regions which previously had not been affected, according to Padilha.
There is no accurate figures on the number of crack users living in Sao Paulo, but they make up a significant percentage of the more than 3,000 "street people," according to Father Julio Lancelotti of the Sao Paulo archdiocese, which also provides shelters for this population.
Lancelotti hailed the establishment of the center.
"It means substituting pain and suffering by care and service, It means replacing repression by attention, integrating health care with social services. It's a welcome first step," he told AFP.
But squatter Maria Solange Machado, who has been living in the streets since 2005, said the center "does not respond to the needs and demands of the squatter movement."
"It amounts to transferring public resources to private entities which are beyond the control of federal law," Machado, a former nurse who was fired from the state health services after she developed mental problems, said.