Rio's homeless raise voices ahead of Olympics

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Many people walk by the homeless without looking but in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, street dwellers became the stars as they stood outside the Olympic city's main theater and sang.

Standing on the steps of the ornate Municipal Theater, about 60 homeless people -- some who live in shelters and others who sleep rough -- charmed the public.

They were participating in a project called With One Voice, started by the British NGO Streetwise Opera at the 2012 London Olympics as a way of highlighting the artistic talents of society's most desperate.

With two weeks to go until the Summer Games open in Rio, a few of the city's homeless -- who number 5,500, according to City Hall -- are again being given a chance to shine with concerts, theater and artists' workshops.

In the front row of the impromptu choir -- which started with "My hunter" by Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento -- was 58-year-old Elizabeth Miguel.

She's been on the streets since March 27, a date she remembers well because it was Easter Sunday. That was when she found herself unable to pay her rent and suddenly was homeless.

Miguel said she's determined to recover, adding: "Being in the street forces me to get back my old life."

And singing in the center of Rio gave her spirits a lift.

"We let go, we forget our sadness," said Miguel, who once traveled to Italy in her youth with a touring dance company. "It's very gratifying and brings me a lot of happiness."

- Beyond basic needs -

Streetwise Opera founder Matt Peacock said the open-air concert reflected that the homeless have more than basic needs.

"In London 2012, we put on an event to give dignity and visibility to homeless people and we came to Rio because we were asked to see if this was possible," he said.

"They need to feel good about themselves, as well as having soup, as well as having shelter," he said. "People go through so much trauma in their lives and art can build wellbeing, make people feel good about themselves, physically and mentally."

Another musician, Jorge Alexandre Junior, kissed his plastic prayer rosary before each song. He sang and danced with huge energy, his eyes shining.

"I ended up on the streets because of drugs. I didn't want to take them at home so I got used to living in my 'cardboard hotel'," Alexandre, 40, said. He has since moved into a shelter.

The show spread good vibes to Brazilians and tourists watching.

"I loved it, I loved it," said a Canadian tourist.

A group of women watching called out what every performer most wants to hear: "Encore, encore!"

And then it was time for the music to stop and for the homeless to return to their bitter reality.