‘New homeless’ families welcome another uncertain year

Lito Ortega hates the coming of the new year. If only he could delay the passing of time, he would do. His family is given until the end of the year to leave the street in Quezon City where they have been living for about three years now.

Lito says he is tired of moving his family from one spot to another. Besides, the small makeshift tent the family calls home does not only provide shelter, it is also strategically located. It sits at a corner on Quezon Avenue where commercial establishments - offices, banks and fast food chains - are lined up. Lito gets his living from these establishments, which chunk out garbage including recyclable materials that he collects and sells to junk shops.

From scavenging, Lito earns an average of 100 pesos a day, too small to feed his family of ten. They live by eating camote tops and bagoong (fermented fish). Lito’s ninth and youngest child died in his arms last year due to pneumonia.

Masakit, mahirap. Andami kong pangarap para sa mga anak ko. Gusto ko lumaki silang malusog at makakapag-aral sila. Pero, di ko alam kung papaano. (It’s painful. It’s hard. I have a lot of dreams for my children. I want them to grow healthy, and go to school. But I don’t know how)," says Lito.

He has been trying to save money to go back to Samar where he used to work as a fisherman. Life in Samar, he says, is hard, but it is harder in Metro Manila. But each centavo he wants to set aside for the boat fare always ends up in the market to buy food.

‘New homeless’

Lito and his family belong to what is now classified as the “new homeless."

In a study by the Institute on Church and Social Issues, more than 100,000 people belonging to the so-called new types of homeless have recently emerged in Metro Manila.

“These are the people moving on the streets in some constant range and who cannot live even in the squatters," said Dr. Hideo Aoki, director of Japan’s Urban Sociology Research Center and a research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University.

The “new homeless" are different from the conventional street people who are engaged in various informal jobs, such as vendors, porters, drivers, scavengers, and even beggars, who have houses to live in the slums.

Aoki classifies the “new homeless" to at least three types.

The first are those whose homes in the slums were demolished. Many of them were not given places to relocate, or those who came back from relocation sites, and those who refused to transfer to relocation sites. They do not have relatives and friends to rely on.

The second type is where Lito belongs. This type includes people who migrated from the provinces hoping to find a better life in Metro Manila. They do not have relatives in Manila and cannot afford to rent houses or rooms. These people are forced to stay with their belongings in bus terminals, parks, cemeteries, and on the streets.

Another group of people migrating to Manila come from tribal and religious communities. Most of them are from the Cordilleras, the Aetas from Central Luzon, and the Muslims from Mindanao and Palawan. They migrate to Manila because of poverty in their provinces. They become vendors, beggars and scavengers, and live on the streets.

“Homeless people support their livelihood on the streets, by the streets and through the streets," says Aoki. These new types of homeless “have not attracted much of people’s attention so far because their existence has been overwhelmed by the large-scale squatter problem."

Rising number

The non-government organization Urban Poor Associates warns that 2008 will see more people becoming homeless because of the demolitions in Metro Manila.

“If these demolitions come without just relocation programs as prescribed by our laws, then affected residents are forced to live not just on streets, but in places where you can’t even imagine people can live," says John Francis Lagman of UPA.

Lagman says these places include bridges and dark tunnels where the homeless live “like rats."

On top of the demolitions, poverty will continue to be a “push factor" for the homeless. There are “pull factors," Lagman says, that induce people to live a life on the streets.

Lagman agrees with Aoki’s findings that the expansion of the service economy in Metro Manila has brought about a chance for people living in the streets.

The drastic rise in numbers of business facilities, convenience stores and restaurants has given people in the streets the life resources, such as food, for them to survive. It also provided opportunities for the homeless to beg.

The expansion of the service economy has also propelled the “informalization" of labor, which created new jobs that the poor can engage in without any need for special knowledge and skills. Jobs like becoming a barker, carrier, and car watcher have appeared. It produced life chances for the homeless.

“It is already a matter of time that the homeless will increase…and that [they] will be recognized as the ‘new homeless’ different from the squatter homeless," Aoki says.

Complex problem

The way of life in the streets has made street homeless a “complex problem" for the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral says there are shelter and livelihood programs for the homeless. There is the Jose Fabella Center in Mandaluyong that provides temporary shelter for the homeless.

At any given day, there are about 300 people in the Center receiving free meals, accommodation and livelihood training. But the problem is some choose to go back to the streets.

“We cannot force them to stay in the Center. It is their right to choose where they want to live. They think they are confined in the Center, and would rather live independently," says Cabral.

She says police officers cannot do much in keeping people away from the streets. Vagrancy is a minor offense and does not carry a prison sentence. It is only considered a misdemeanor.

DSWD also runs a program to provide trip passes to homeless people wanting to go back to their provinces. But this is hardly effective. “It seems that they have only used DSWD to pay for their trips whenever they want to go home. They find jobs on the streets, so they keep coming back."

Budget constraints are another concern for the DSWD. In 2007, the department received a budget of 3.6 billion pesos. But with 86 million Filipinos, DSWD can only provide 40 pesos worth of help to each individual.

“If there’s only one of every ten Filipinos who needs our help, that’s still 400 pesos. In one day, one individual in the Center will consume all that," says Cabral.

Stronger focus

The government says it will give stronger focus on the ten poorest provinces in the country to help prevent the poor from trooping to Metro Manila.

The ten poorest provinces indicated in the National Statistical Coordination Board survey of 2003 are Zamboanga del Norte, Masbate, Maguindanao, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte, Mountain Province, Lanao del Norte, Camarines Norte, Saranggani and Zamboanga Sibugay.

Secretary Domingo Panganiban, lead convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, says that the government is determined to boost its programs to increase food production and ensure steady food supply through food terminals, construction of more farm-to-market roads and irrigation systems, providing fish cages and cold storage to fishermen, and the distribution of carabaos and native chickens to farmers.

“Our objective is to reduce the incidence of poverty in the country to 17 percent, or at least 20 percent, by the year 2010," says Panganiban. At present, around 24 millions of Filipinos live below the poverty line.

The government has also vowed to build close to half-a-million housing units for the poor in the next two years. The housing outlay will cover those remaining poor families displaced by squatter demolitions in an effort to bring them away from the streets.

He says the housing projects will follow standards on tenure, quality and access to safe water and sanitation facilities.

But for one poor and anxious Ortega, these government efforts mean nothing.

Malapit na ang bagong taon. Di ko pa alam saan ako pupunta (The new year is fast approaching. I still don’t know where to go.)" GMANews.TV

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