Clowns in crackland: Brazilian doctor helps the homeless

They may be dressing up as clowns, but the task at hand for psychiatrist Flavio Falcone and actor Andrea Macera is no laughing matter.

They’re heading to Brazil's "cracolandia” – or crackland.

A dangerous wasteland of about eight blocks in the historic center of Sao Paulo.

In his white doctor's jacket, Falcone couldn’t get homeless drug addicts to talk.

This was his solution.

Costumes and music break the ice, a first step in getting them the mental health and addiction treatment they need.

He’s become an icon here.

Patients know him as The Clown, not as a doctor.

[Psychiatrist, Flavio Falcone]

"As a doctor I am the imparter of knowledge, people come to me for the knowledge I have. Dressed as a clown there is none of this. I am approachable to people, and what I try to look for is to develop a relationship, and from this relationship to see what is possible to do in each case."

Falcone has been treating a growing number of Brazilians, driven to the streets by the COVID-19 pandemic which has devastated the country's economy.

Millions have sunk into poverty since the start of the year.

The homeless population has surged after government emergency aid payments to the poor were reduced and eventually ran out at the end of 2020.

With government support receding from crackland, Falcone has tried to fill the void.

[Psychiatrist, Flavio Falcone]

"I think that violence is increasing, and a number of people who are and also who are not receiving emergency assistance are being forced onto the streets. It's clear that it is increasing. The number of people that I have seen from January up to now has increased considerably. I put this down to a lack of emergency assistance."

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.

Falcone and Macera helped find housing for about 20 of those displaced and distributed 200 tents.

[Actor, Andrea Macera]

"We are at the worst time for humanity, the worst time for those who are vulnerable. The streets are full. We are used to saying that the streets are bleeding. They are bleeding because of a very tragic time in humanity."

For Jailson Antonio de Oliveira, a former drug addict, 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.

[Former drug addict, Jailson Antonio de Oliveira]

"There are few who manage to survive. I am one of the lucky ones. Above all else God protects us but life there (on streets) is not easy. Today I have a better life, thanks to Flavio the clown. He is my right arm. He has helped me however he can."