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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September, 2003, 07:07 GMT 08:07 UK
Banking for the Brazilian homeless

By Isabel Murray
Sao Paulo, Brazil

In Brazil, street dwellers have achieved a victory in the fight against social exclusion - they can now have bank accounts.

Neuza Maria Magalhaes, who is 42 years old, does not have a home or a proper job.

Neuza Maria Magalhaes
Neuza is excited about using her new ATM card
In order to survive she collects rubbish and sleeps in the streets, which means that officially she does not exist.

The Brazilian government department that is responsible for the task of population census does not include street dwellers.

In spite of this, these people play a role in the informal economy.

The great majority of them collect paper, aluminium, iron and other recyclable materials.

The everyday sight of junk collectors, with their carts and their dogs is a part of the Brazilian urban landscape.

Up until now these people had never been able to have a bank account.

But the situation changed recently when a major Brazilian banking institution created a simplified account that does not require proof of address or of income, and Neuza is one of those who is enjoying this novelty.

"I make between 20 reais (4) and 50 reais (10) a day, it varies a lot," says Neuza. "When I was in the street, I wasn't able to keep anything. I'd buy a little gas stove to keep in my cart, and a gas canister, but people used to steal them.

"Now, I put my money in the bank," she adds, with a big grin, showing her ATM bank card, which she does not even know how to use yet.

Beyond expectations

The bureaucracy-free account is already a success. When it was launched in May, the expectation was that a total of 500,000 accounts would be opened across the whole country by the end of the year.

This number was reached at the end of August.

Luiz and his rabbit, Wilbur
Luiz is no longer afraid of being robbed in the street
"Research has shown for some time that there are around 25 million families that have no access to the financial system, no access to credit," explains Jorge Matoso, president of Caixa Economica Federal, the bank that is behind the scheme to encourage the social inclusion of street dwellers.

"This translates into a very large number of people, something like 50 million Brazilians who could have access to the formal banking system, but didn't," he adds.

"As well as not having any fixed address, a large number of those who are economically active in Brazil work on an informal basis, and thus have no proof of income."

Plans for the future

Luiz Fabio is 28 years old and has been collecting rubbish for recycling for five years now. Unlike most of the junk collectors, who have dogs as pets, Luiz has a rabbit called Wilbur.

He says he felt discriminated against because he didn't have a bank account, and that beforehand he had to hide his money inside his clothes, as he was always afraid of being robbed.

Marcio with his cart
Marcio dreams of renting a home and having a family
Now, that he can save money, he is able to make some modest plans for the future.

"My aim is to rent a small house, furnish it, and have a little corner of my own, where I can live and be a member of society. Both me and my rabbit," says Luiz, affectionately stroking Wilbur.

There is no single cause that leads people to end up living in the streets.

Among the various reasons are unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental health problems, abandonment and family disagreements.

Getting a bank account seems to represent a way out for rubbish collectors looking for a better life.

"Everything's improved because now I can save money, and maybe a few days from now I can get off the streets, rent a home and have a family, you know," says 22 year-old Marcio Ferreira Batista, with a smile. "That's my dream, to have a family of my own."

Neuza, who has lived in the streets for as long as she can remember, and to whom basic necessities are a luxury, has the same idea.

"Now that I have somewhere to keep my money, maybe I will be able to rent an apartment, one that has water and electricity," she says, hopefully.

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