By Amanda Perobelli
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - In his white doctor's jacket, psychiatrist Flavio Falcone could not get homeless drug addicts to talk.
But costumed as a jester with a bright red nose, he has become an icon in Brazil's "cracolandia," or crackland: a dangerous wasteland of about eight blocks in the historic center of Sao Paulo where addicts twitch and pushers roam.
Falcone's patients know him as The Clown, not as a doctor.
He treats a growing number of Brazilians, driven onto the street by the COVID-19 pandemic which has devastated the country's economy. Early government support, a lifeline for many, has also wavered.
"This character represents the exposure of mistakes, of the fragility of what exists in the shadow. The exposure of failures," said Falcone.
"What makes you laugh is the clown that trips, not the clown who walks straight. The people who are on the street are really the failures of capitalist society."
Falcone is not your average carnival clown.
Infused with hip-hop street culture, he sports a gold chain and flat brimmed cap and struts the streets followed by a speaker blaring rap.
Working with actress Andrea Macera, Falcone uses the costumes and music to break the ice with the homeless as a first step to getting them the mental health and addiction treatment they need. During "radio" time organized by Falcone and Macera, homeless people in crackland can request songs and even rap along. Around the public square, addicts huddle together and openly light up slim crack pipes.
His work in the neighborhood since 2012 has earned him a loyal following. One man who received addiction help from Falcone tattooed the word "clown" in Portuguese on his wrist.
With government support receding from crackland, Falcone has tried to fill the void.
In April 2020, one month after the pandemic first hit Brazil, the government closed down a homeless shelter here as part of an effort to clean up the city center to make way for construction. The nearest shelter is about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away.
Falcone and Macera helped find housing for about 20 of those displaced and to distribute 200 tents provided by a Brazilian non-government organization. In late 2020, they launched a new program called "Roof, Work and Treatment" to offer support to the homeless, with funding from the local labor prosecutors' office.
The homeless population has surged after 600 reais ($106.16) per month government emergency aid payments to the poor were reduced and eventually ran out at the end of 2020. After a delay in congressional approval, payments are set to resume this month at an even lower rate.
For many, that help is too little, too late. Millions have sunk into poverty since the start of the year.
For Jonatha de David Sousa Reis and Bruna Kelly Simoes, that meant losing their home. The couple moved into a makeshift tent, strung between two trees, on a public square in crackland this year.
"As long as there are no jobs, the emergency payment should have been maintained as it was," Reis, 34, said. "It's been difficult, very difficult."
They are arriving on the streets just as COVID-19 hits the deadliest point on record in Brazil. Every week since late February has seen new daily records for deaths from coronavirus.
As soon as next week, Brazil may overtake the U.S. record of 3,285 deaths per day, based on a seven-day average, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.
Reis said he hoped to get a job back at the shipping company where he used to work once the pandemic eases, although that seems unlikely to happen soon. Epidemiologists expect the outbreak to worsen in the months to come. Brazil is second to only the United States in deaths and cases.
For Jailson Antonio de Oliveira, 51, Falcone is his main lifeline. The clown's philanthropy effort pays for a room for himself and his girlfriend, even if he can no longer afford meat after the emergency payments ran out.
"Today I have a better life because of Flavio Falcone, the clown," said Oliveira, with clown tattooed on his wrist. "He's my right arm, he helps with everything he can."
($1 = 5.6516 reais)
(Reporting by Amanda Perobelli; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Richard Chang)