Former 'crackland' addict turns Sao Paulo trash into livelihood

SAO PAULO, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Fabiana Silva called the streets of São Paulo home for 16 years as one of hundreds of people trapped in cracolândia, the open-air drug markets in South America's biggest city.

Now the street has become a livelihood for Silva, who has kicked an addiction to crack cocaine and moved into an informal two-story dwelling in a nearby slum.

Silva, 38, pulls her bright purple cart by hand through the São Paulo, piling it high with more than 400 kg (800 lbs) of recyclables picked from refuse to earn roughly 100 reais ($32) per day - the only money she earns to support three children.

"The street today puts food on my table," she said.

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Former addict turns recycling into livelihood
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Former addict turns recycling into livelihood
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, sits on her cart before starting work in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, stands at the entrance of her house before starting work in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, jumps off her cart loaded with recyclables in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, sells her wares to a cardboard recycler in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 6, 2017. The word on the container reads: "Freedom". REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user, and her nephews collect recyclable materials in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, waits at traffic lights as she pushes a cart loaded with recyclables in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, pushes her cart loaded with recyclables, accompanied by her nephew Jean, 9, and her dog Bobby, on Paulista avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, sells her wares to a cardboard recycler in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, pushes her cart loaded with recyclables, accompanied by her son Brian (R), 8, and her nephew Jean (C), 9, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, pushes her cart loaded with recyclables, accompanied by her son Brian, 8, her nephews Jean, 9, and Igor, 10, and their dog Bobby, on Paulista avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, pushes her cart loaded with recyclables, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, stands next to her cart in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, washes dishes inside her house in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce 
Brian, 8, son of former crack user Fabiana da Silva who now collects recyclable materials, looks at the cat inside their house in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, and her son Breno, 14, wake up inside their house in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, and her sons Brian (L), 8, and Breno, 14, have breakfast inside their house in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, puts on make up, as her sons Brian (8), and Breno (L), 14, joke inside their house, in Moinho favela, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, has her hair and nails done before her high school graduation ceremony in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, holds her certificate as she wipes her tear at her high school graduation ceremony at Coracao de Jesus school in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, receives a certificate at her high school graduation ceremony at Coracao de Jesus school in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Fabiana da Silva, 38, a former crack user who now collects recyclable materials, holds her certificate as she is congratulated at her high school graduation ceremony at Coracao de Jesus school in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
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Silva is one of a small army of trash pickers who comb the streets of São Paulo, home to 20 million, for materials missed by the city's official recycling trucks.

"The recycling trucks can't keep up," she said. "Now imagine how much people like me have cleaned up. We've saved millions of trees because a tonne of recycled cardboard saves 22 trees from being cut down."

Silva ran away from her home in the outskirts of the metropolis at age 7 to flee an abusive stepfather, ending up in a corner of the city center where dealers sell openly to addicts living on the street.

That "crackland" in the shadow of a historic train station converted into a prestigious concert hall is now subject to a government cleanup, the latest in a series of failed attempts to ease the city's crack epidemic in recent years.

Silva described her years in the drug market as "hell."

She spent four stints in the juvenile justice system before she was arrested and discovered she was pregnant with her first child, now 17 years old.

Silva said her children, including an 8- and a 14-year-old, were her motivation for quitting drugs after floating through halfway houses.

"It took so much strength for me to leave that life," she said. "But along came my kids, and I just had to get out."

Eventually she found work as an assistant social worker tending to addicts, a job now requiring a high school diploma, before she turned to recycling for a living.

CRACKDOWN ON CRACOLÂNDIA

Mayor João Doria took office this year with a harder-line stance on Sao Paulo's eight cracklands, where an estimated 1,800 people live. However, recent government efforts to break up Silva's old crackland have merely displaced it to nearby blocks.

Some experts criticize the approach as pushing the problem around the city without giving addicts a way out.

Doria has refused to back down, saying the drug markets had already sprung up around São Paulo under previous mayors and that he would take on each cracolândia in turn.

Silva said draconian measures like forcing addicts into clinics would not work, adding that only time and voluntary treatment can help. Officials running the city's drug policy say all treatment is voluntary.

"To break addiction, you have to really want out," Silva said. "It's hard when a person is hooked. That's all the body wants."

Having overcome her own addiction, Silva's aspirations do not end on the street. She recently graduated from middle school and will start high school this month. She plans to go to university and become a veterinarian.

"I was a street girl," she said, standing outside her humble new home while on a break from recycling runs. "I left school in third grade. Now, after becoming an adult, I went back to school to graduate.

"It's a great achievement for me. It means so much."

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