RIO DE JANEIRO – The hungry in Rio de Janeiro became the latest casualties of the state's financial crunch Thursday as some of the busiest soup kitchens were shut down for lack of funding.
The state social service department said three of the 16 government-run meal centers were being completely closed and breakfast service was being dropped at five other centers.
It was the latest fallout from a financial crisis that is fueling worries about whether Rio de Janeiro can afford police officers and a subway line ahead of the Olympics that begin Aug. 5. The welfare agency said one of its food suppliers has not been paid for more than a year and is owed about $7.5 million.
At the Central do Brazil soup kitchen, behind the main train station, hundreds of people waited in line Thursday, many of them homeless or street vendors who sell secondhand clothes, shoes, discarded toys and old cellphones. They paid 2 reals, or 62 cents, for a warm meal of beans, noodles and rice with sausage at a center that has served lunch to 3,800 people every day.
A handwritten sign hung with duct tape at the entrance greeted the diners: "Today we shut down our services."
A man who did not give his name shouted, "Shame on you, thieves!"
The eyes of 78-year-old Raimunda Ferreira watered as she left the center. "What are we going to do now?" she asked.
Josue Neri de Souza, a 74-year-old doorman who said he had been eating at the soup kitchen since it opened in 2000, felt betrayed by the government. "They are taking away our rights," he said. "This is for us poor, for homeless people, people who don't even make minimum salary."
Paulo Melo, secretary of state's social services, said he had warned Rio de Janeiro state's governor, chief of staff and finance secretary that the soup kitchens needed more funds right away.
"I tried to convince them," he said in a statement. "At this point, it is obvious that we are unable to offer services to our people."
The state government's revenues have been hit hard by the plunge in global oil prices in recent years. Rio's acting governor declared a state of financial disaster earlier this month, giving officials more freedom to manage shrinking resources without breaking laws. The state has been skipping payments to teachers and retired workers. Some police stations are missing basic items like toilet paper and are asking residents for handouts.
Diego Luiz, a street vendor who ate with his wife at the Central do Brazil center, said the quality of meals had worsened in the past year as the government dropped items from the menu such as beef and many fruits and vegetables. The center also raised the price from 1 to 2 reals.
"Only God knows what we'll eat now," Luiz said.
Thalia Martines, a 19-year-old rubbed her pregnant belly while feeding her 2-year-old daughter with rice and beans as the toddler played with red baseball caps that her mother planned to sell on the street.
"She likes the food. It's not the best. It would be good if we could have bread and fruit and some vegetables, but it's something," Martines said. "I wish it could stay open."