São Sebastião Institute of Infectious Diseases was inaugurated in 1889 by Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, just a few days before the Empire dissolved. It was the only medical facility in the city specializing in contagious diseases, as well as the first in Brazil to separate patients with different diseases. In 2002 the hospital handled a dengue outbreak, treating thousands of patients without a single fatality. It was shut down in 2008, partly due to violent conflicts in the area, and the research institute was moved to a smaller site.
The hospital located in Caju, a neighborhood in Rio’s Port Zone best known for São Francisco Xavier cemetery, the largest in the city. Caju is a peninsula cut off from the mainland by two major freeways, Avenida Brasil and Linha Vermelha. Like the rest of the Port Zone, it has been neglected by the government and is fairly rundown. São Sebastião is near the favelas São Sebastião, Parque Alegria, Parque Ladeira dos Funcionários, and Chatuba, all allegedly controlled by Amigos dos Amigos, one of the largest gangs in Rio. As traffic-related violence increased in the early 2000s, patients and staff alike were frightened to enter the region.
According to Jorge Darze, president of the Rio de Janeiro State Doctors’ Syndicate, the hospital’s closure represents an irreplaceable loss of scientific patrimony. “Even though they wasted more than R$1 million repairing the hospital before shutting it down, and society opposed the move… [Governor Sérgio] Cabral treated the closure as a fait accompli.” O Globo reports that R$6 million was spent on unfinished repairs.
Last year O Globo reported that residents of Parque Ladeira dos Funcionários were constructing houses on the hospital grounds and looting its buildings for materials. The State Health Secretariat installed security guards to prevent further invasions, at a cost of R$9,800 a month. A Jornal do Brasil piece from March 2012 stated that the squatters were homeless or displaced from other areas, and that no security guards were in evidence.
According to Fabio Bittencourt, an architect and preservationist, the hospital’s location sealed its fate:
“With the construction of São Francisco Xavier Cemetery, the vertiginous expansion of the favela Parque Alegria, and the isolation caused by Avenida Brasil and Linha Vermelha, the hospital didn’t have a chance of survival. The neighborhood is no longer seen as valuable. Many factors converged to assure its degradation: death, symbolized by the cemetery; violence, caused by the drug traffic; and trash [there is a garbage dump in the area].”
Lt. Col. Ronal Langres Freitas de Santana, commander of the Military Police battalion in São Cristovão, has received anonymous tips that traffickers are using the hospital grounds as a hideout.
The hospital was being transformed into a favela. In addition to building brick houses on the grounds, people moved into the buildings themselves, dividing the space into apartments, stringing clotheslines out the windows, and constructing additions. On Tuesday state authorities began demolishing the illegal constructions.
The State Human Rights Secretariat found that 300 families were living on the land. They will receive “aluguel social,” or rent stipends, of R$500 per month to find new housing. Housing projects will be built nearby as part of the Minha Casa Minha Vida program, theoretically to house those evicted from the hospital; however, they will not be ready for a year and a half. Evicted residents have reason to distrust both offers: people evicted from other favelas in the past few years “have not received adequate compensation or suitable alternative housing,” according to Amnesty International.
Icaro Moreno, president of the State Public Works Department (Empresa de Obras Públicas do Estado, or EMOP) claims that the squatters have turned to real estate speculation, selling houses on the grounds for up to R$6,000. Authorities found bricks, construction tools, and markings for new foundations on the ground. According to Moreno, the houses can be constructed in five days, with work stopping only when BOPE carries out operations in the area.
The State Health Secretariat announced that the hospital will house a crack addiction treatment and research center, opening in 2013 to coincide with the Pope’s visit.