SAO PAULO, Brazil — Between the high-rises in the dark center of this megacity, a swarm of people covers an entire block. They are in constant, aimless motion, glazed eyes and dirty faces illuminated repeatedly by small flashes of fire.
This is cracolandia, or crack land, and the horde is one of many moving settlements of homeless drug addicts that dominate this part of town. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, live here, sleeping and sometimes dying on the streets as other Paulistanos, residents of the fast-moving and gritty city, step past and over them on the way to work or Christmas shopping.
The men beg, hustle or recycle trash, while many of the women sell their bodies. Some shelters are available, but many of the addicts prefer not to go. Police might claim a nearby corner, then stand by and watch without making arrests.
"I had always heard about cracolandia, that you could always get high there, you could live your life and get whatever you wanted," says Tiago Bussulom Moraes, 23, who gave up on treating his addiction two years ago and took a bus here from his nearby hometown of Campinas.
"I could go back to treatment, or home, but I'm staying here," he says. "Crack, it takes hold of you. It makes you do things you don't want to do. And I regret it. But this is the life I've chosen."
Brazil is dealing with what officials call a crack epidemic, affecting Brazilians of all ages and confounding government efforts to deal with it. Almost a year after a high-profile police effort to clean up Sao Paulo's cracolandia as part of a revitalization program for the historic center, the outposts remain, but in a number of shifting locations rather than one large one.
"I've seen no improvements and some things are getting worse," said William Damiao Quirino, who has been working as a doorman and security guard downtown for six years. "Trying to clean up this or that corner isn't working. The only thing I think can work is a concerted community effort, involving residents too, to try to get these people treatment."
Crack is cheap and readily available in Brazil, as is cocaine, the drug from which it is made. Compared with other parts of the world, homeless addicts here can meet their basic needs relatively easily. Some restaurants provide food and water. There is community. And it's rarely so cold that sleeping outside is intolerable.
As crack has taken hold in Brazil over the last decade, cracolandias have popped up all around the country, from the Amazon jungle in the distant northwest to nearby Rio de Janeiro.
The best estimates are that there were about 1.5 million crack users in Brazil in 2005 and many more now.
Like cocaine and marijuana, crack is illegal in Brazil, but authorities are dealing with it more as a public health crisis than a criminal matter. Health specialists look to treatment techniques developed abroad, including in the United States, but have also learned that a "war on drugs" approach can be expensive and ineffective, said Telmo Ronzani, a specialist in drugs and public health at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora.
In 2011, President Dilma Rousseff announced a $1.9-billion plan to battle crack, largely through expanded treatment and education. The local government in Rio de Janeiro has forced underage users into treatment, and some drug traffickers there even halted crack sales, claiming to be concerned about the effect on the community. But addicted children and adults remain on the streets.
"This is a serious and difficult public problem, and could never be solved quickly. At best, it can be attacked in the medium and long term," Ronzani said. "But if we actually want the situation to improve, authorities need to enact an immediate and effective public solution that involves expanding availability to treatment and improving it."
Free treatment does exist. Adelson Pereira, 48, spends most of his nights in a public shelter a few miles from the city center that offers Narcotics Anonymous-type treatment. But tonight he is in cracolandia, going through trash looking for cans to sell, his eyes yellow and bulging.
"I made a mistake," he says sadly, referring to his decision to ditch the shelter for a few days and slip back into drugs. "It's good there, there's food, there's a bed, there's classes, and you can't use drugs inside. But it's 2,500 men, and a lot of people don't want to spend time in a place like that."
He worked as a welder and took his first hit of crack eight years ago, he says. "I passed out. It was too much. And after that" — he pronounces his words slowly — "it started to dominate me." He no longer speaks to his ex-wife but sometimes gets to see his daughters, ages 5 and 7, no younger than some residents of cracolandia.
"I've seen 6-year-olds, 8-year-olds, many of whom are forced to beg by their parents, and then there are the runaway teens that may have been beaten at home," he says.
The life is ugly, and cheap. A rock of crack, which can weigh about a quarter of a gram, costs less than $2.50; a prostitute can be had for as little as $5.
Though cracolandia has some of the city's most beautiful architecture, and sits alongside up-and-coming neighborhoods downtown, the persistence of a community of addicts, as well as access to relatively valuable trash, keeps the area attractive to the homeless.
Police have started arriving at certain corners from time to time, shifting the groups around, but life goes on largely as usual.
"When I see a 15-year-old girl, pregnant, and smoking crack, as a doctor I just can't say that's OK," said Dr. Arthur Guerra at the University of Sao Paulo. "In that kind of case, implementing involuntary internment might be the best option … but the population shouldn't expect magical solutions from the government. This also has to involve the city, families, NGOs, schools and companies. And we need prevention and education programs for the long term."
Locals live in tense harmony with the homeless, as the area fills up during the business day and then empties out to grim scenes at night. Feet from where Pereira rifles for cans, commuters coming out of the subway station step around a barefoot man on his knees, hands outstretched, wailing in despair.
"It's horrible. It's really difficult, because we see these people going through this and there's nothing we can do," says Dalva Assis, who runs a construction and electricity company downtown and spends her days walking between work sites. "They've taken over a plaza in front of one of my projects, and so I'm waiting to hear back on a request we've filed for the police to set up a base there."
Moraes says a friend who moved here with him was killed for robbing the wrong people in an attempt to get a fix. He agrees that if treatment were better, more people might accept it.
"But you're never going to solve the problem of those of us who want to keep using drugs. Crack is too powerful," Moraes says.
"What they should do is take us and just put us all in one area and let us be, so the population doesn't have to watch us using. People shouldn't have to see us living like this."
Bevins is a special correspondent.