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.
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.
Silva described her years in the drug market as “hell.”
Silva said her children, including an eight- 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.”
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.”