Feeding the Homeless in Curitiba, Brazil ("Rango de Rua")
It’s Friday morning in Brazil, and Gabriel, my local contact and host in Curitiba, is driving us to the municipal market. He tells me that he and his father, Alexandre, sometimes volunteer to feed the homeless outside the market on Friday nights. After a brief discussion, we decide to see if we can volunteer to help later. As we sit down for lunch, Gabriel pulls out his phone to confirm with his father, and smiles because Alexandre has already sent him a message about tonight. The last line reads “Aproveita leva o amigo Americano,” “Take the opportunity and bring your American friend.”
We try to be at the kitchen by 6:00 to help cook, but we have trouble finding the place. When we finally arrive, I understand why Gabriel couldn’t remember the exact location; it’s just someone’s house. We walk past a normal home in a dense residential neighborhood to a kitchen in between the front and back residences. There are twelve volunteers with hairnets getting ready to cook nearly two hundred meals.
Fernando, who is coordinating, briefly greets us as we enter. We are given few instructions, everyone here (except me) knows their job and is getting to work. It feels like a large family coming together to cook a weekly meal, and I soon learn that this is pretty close to what is happening. Gabriel tells me that several years ago there was a Christmas dinner they had served to the homeless, and they had more food than they needed. The following Friday, they prepared the surplus of food and brought meals directly to people in the streets. It’s been a weekly tradition ever since. Gabriel and his father have been helping since last year. They refer to this activity as “Rango de Rua” (“Food of the Street”), but it’s not an official organization, it’s just something they all do together.
I see that this tightly-knit group is willing to let me help, but they’re also curious about who I am and why I’m here. I feel a bit like a new guest at a family gathering. I learn that this charitable activity has no affiliation with any formal volunteer organizations, nor with any churches, nor with the government. It’s informal and they like it that way. It’s clear to me that they are here to help feed people, not to get credit for their charity.
Gabriel and I begin to prepare the pasta. It’s not all the same pasta, presumably it was donated from different sources. Once it’s ready to cook, Gabriel and I are asked to sort donated clothing. Everyday men’s and women’s street clothes are being separated from the children’s clothing and from other items that they can sell. We’ll be donating the street clothes later tonight to people along with the meals, the rest of the clothing will be sold at a yard sale to raise money to for future meals
After we load the sorted clothing into one of the volunteer’s cars, we’re called into the kitchen to help package food into individual containers. Tonight’s meal is hot rice, pasta, and chicken with a creamy white sauce. Once again, everyone knows their job and the volunteers quickly form an assembly line. I gravitate towards the dirty pots and pans because I know cleaning dishes won’t require Portuguese, but the crew instead puts me at the end of the assembly line, helping wrap each meal with a set of plastic utensils. We package 194 meals, labeling the last few as vegetarian with a smiley face drawn on the container.
We load the meals into the cars, and our caravan of vehicles hits the road, stopping every so often to deliver meals to people on the street. We arrive at our first planned stop, some buildings that are currently unoccupied; the lack of foot traffic means nobody tells the homeless to leave the street in front of the buildings. The volunteer crew approaches the people with both kindness and caution. They ask in Portuguese “Good evening, would you like a hot meal?”, which is accepted by almost everyone we meet. Gabriel’s father, Alexandre, joins us, recently arriving from the airport. Once everyone here has a meal, the three of us drive to the municipal market where Gabriel and I ate lunch earlier today.
There are a lot of people sleeping outside at the market, mostly men, some women, but no children. Our group has grown to more than twenty as more volunteers arrive to help distribute meals. We hand out meals, and then a few volunteers pass out cups to fill with juice. They also distribute desserts that look like cups of tapioca pudding, which are very popular with the people we are feeding. Fernando, who greeted Gabriel and me when we arrived at the kitchen, starts talking to people to ask what clothes they need. He then goes through the items that we sorted earlier to find their sizes.
Our last stop of the night is the city plaza near the university. Gabriel tells me that he knows where some people sleep around here from seeing them on his way to and from class. The first person we speak with thanks us for his meal and tells us where to find the his friend. Gabriel and I find the next person sleeping in a bed made of open cardboard boxes, just big enough for him to lie down. We give him a meal, and Gabriel speaks with him briefly before we try to find him some shoes. We don’t have his size so he accepts two pairs of socks.
With the all the meals distributed, Fernando thanks everyone for helping out, and we all return to our cars. It’s rewarding to have been a part of the effort and to see the positive impact, though difficult to see so many people living in such conditions. All things considered, I take some comfort knowing that at least the volunteers will be there next week to help again.