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An experience of a “communitarian salvation” is how Pope Francis describes in Laudato si’ what the architects of Passo Fundo in southern Brazil are doing. From fundraising to renovation projects, the purchase of materials and installation, the “Architecture for those who need it most” initiative restores dignity to the city’s low-income families by building bathrooms equipped with all the necessary sanitary facilities.
Andressa Collet –Vatican City
Dilapidated homes are the reality for thousands of families in Brazil. They face great challenges since proper hygenic facilities are lacking, cracks are found in walls and ceilings invaded by insects, hot water, plumbing, electricity are not available, and infrastructure is lacking for proper waste disposal. According to 2018 IBGE national data, 35.7% of the population does not have access to waste water infrastructure and 5.8 million people lack basic sanitation.
As Pope Francis writes in Laudato si’ (LS 158), “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.” His voice here has helped generate so many responses in recent years from the large and varied world of volunteering.
Architect and urban planner Marina Bernardes had no doubts about putting her experience and professionalism at the service of those most in need. Two years ago, she started the social project called “Architecture for those who need it most” as an extension of the Architecture course of the University Center for Development of the Alto Vale do Itajaí (Unidavi), in the city of Rio do Sul in Santa Catarina state of Brazil. In its second year of activity, it also started up in Passo Fundo in the state of Rio Grande do Sul where it became an NGO. Marina brought together a group of 19 women, including architects, urban planners, engineers, and architecture students who work on behalf of low-income families, working on improvements and renovations of bathrooms in the precarious housing, as called for by Brazil’s Technical Assistance Law 11.888/2008.
Architecture for those who need it most
The home should be the place where you live and feel safe, but many homes in Brazil do not even have the standards to be defined as such. The initiative therefore seeks to give dignity to families, firstly by building bathrooms or renovating existing ones and redoing the electrical and plumbing systems. “We have families living without a bathroom, without light, having only one room available, and this reality has always struck us, as professionals of an applied social science,” says Marina, adding that it is impossible in the face of certain situations not to talk about human rights. She points out that “for a person to have a dignified life, they need an environment, decent housing. The right to housing is a human right that guarantees a person can live a healthy life and be able to carry out other activities. And, just like housing, health is key. It is necessary to ensure medical care of course, but first and foremost it is essential that the environment in which you live, your home, is healthy and dignified. I believe that, in this sense, we certainly help people so that they can have access to a fundamental right that in Brazil, most of the time, is not satisfied. It is without a doubt a type of project that deserves to be considered not only in Brazilian cities but also in other cities around the world dealing with this same housing shortage as here in Passo Fundo.”
How the social project works
From the project on paper to the collection of funding, the procurement of materials and the complete execution of the work, social architecture gets close to the poorest. It is the family itself that asks the NGO for help, either directly or through other associations or community representatives, thus becoming the beneficiary of the renovation work after an inspection by experts. The work can take months, but the first step is always to identify the characteristics of the family making the request. They look at the conditions where they live, how many family members they have, what level of difficulty they have, followed by an assessment of the physical space available to understand how to plan the renovation.
In fact, Marina explains, “once we get there, we evaluate the peculiarities of the place, take measurements, talk to the family, ask the residents what they would like to have, how they would like the space to be organized, and then we draw up the project on paper.” As soon as it is finished, the family reviews it to see if it meets their needs. Immediately afterwards, fundraising starts, and donations are sought, including via social networks, followed by the purchase of building materials. In three online campaigns created by one program, 187 people collaborated on it and managed to collect more than 17,000 Brazilian Real (around US $3,000) to be allocated for the project.
Currently the project only manages to cover an average of three families per year, due to the time it takes to collect the resources to pay for the work. Marina says the demand is much greater, and with the right resources it might even be possible to assist one family per month. “At the same time”, she points out that, “with public incentives or other means, we could really reach more people at the same time, shortening waiting times considerably.” The project coordinator adds that in a country like Brazil, many challenges are faced on a day-by-day basis: “I think the most painful thing is to realize that there are so many families, too many, in need of help! We often have the feeling that we are doing too little compared to the current needs, but, in any case, it is certainly gratifying to experience how joining forces can make a difference! And this happens thanks to our competence as architects and creators of the project, but above all thanks to the strength and the dynamism of the community. The people who live in Passo Fundo are motivated by the project, so they are committed to the cause and support us. And it’s only for this reason that we are able to really deliver a new bathroom to someone. I think that’s the most incredible thing, seeing that there is still hope.”
Together with the Pope, protecting the vulnerable
The volunteers and community of Passo Fundo, in a way part of a “network of solidarity and belonging” (LS 148), therefore do not waste time to ” keep the poor of the future in mind”, as the Pope reminds us in Laudato si’, but act for ” today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting” (LS 162). Pope Francis also considers “admirable” the “creativity and generosity…shown by persons and groups who respond to environmental limitations”, making a place turn ” from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life” (LS 148). It allows a real “experience of a communitarian salvation ” (LS 149), which does much credit to the founder of the Passo Fundo project that is already extending the initiative to the construction of entire houses. “It is very gratifying for us,” she concludes, “to know that ‘Architecture for those who need it most’ is a project that responds to the vision and action of our Pope regarding the protection of the most vulnerable. We know that our work, our outreach to others is strongly encouraged by him, which makes our action even more beautiful.”