Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Manila Faces Street-Dwellers Dilemma

Municipal officials and NGOs struggle to resolve the capital’s homelessness problem.
By Claire Delfin
Mary Grace Pulido, 17, is from Ermita. She was born there, grew up there, and lives there. She even found her man there. Her life, though, is on the street.

She and her family often move from one corner to another. Mary Grace has known no other home but the sidewalks of this tourist district of Manila, a stone’s throw from the American embassy.

Her parents came to the Philippine capital in the 1980s from Baguio City, 240 kilometres north of Manila, with hopes of finding a better life.

But like so many others before and after them, all they found instead was hardship. Within days, and with no money or prospects of returning home, they ended up on the streets, begging and bringing up a family as best they could.

Their belongings comprise some folded cardboard they use as sleeping mats, pots, pans and plate for cooking, and some clothes. When the rains come, they gather everything up together and run into a nearby church for shelter.

Perhaps because they always stick together and are always moving around, they have never been victims of violence nor recruited by criminal gangs.

Mary Grace claims she made it to Grade 3 in school, but was forced to quit because her parents could not afford to keep her in class.

“I earn 50 to 100 Philippines pesos, PhP, a day (1 to 2 US dollars),” she told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project. “On some days I get nothing save a handful of coins.”

Mary Grace wants to change her life as she prepares to have her own family with her partner Chris Dela Cruz, 12 years her senior.

Chris is also a beggar, something that Mary Grace doesn’t want her children to become.

“I don’t want to have many children,” she said. “Maybe one or two will do, so they can all go to school.”

As she speaks, her eyes watch the children – half-naked and filthy – playing in the street. Five of them are her sister’s children.

Mary Grace and her family are among the hundreds of street-dwellers in Ermita, a district known for its pubs, clubs and restaurants frequented by foreign tourists who the police say unknowingly attract the beggars to this part of the city.

Superintendent Rogelio Rosales, chief of Manila Police District Station 5, says many beggars choose Ermita because tourists would rather give a few pesos than be jostled or harassed.

It is a common tactic for beggars, particularly young children to crowd around a passing tourist in small groups, following him until he takes out some change. The police have received complaints from visitors who claim they have been surrounded and robbed by young gangs.

In response, the police have run operations to clear the streets, bringing the children and their families to government-run temporary shelters where social workers try to persuade them to live elsewhere.

“But it seems though all our efforts are futile,” complained Rosales. “Within three days, you see them again all back on the streets. It’s an endless cycle.”

Rosales adds that the Department of Social Welfare and Development, DSWD, needs to examine its programmes and policies to see what is not working and why.

But DSWD points to local government units, LGUs, charged with giving aid to street-dwellers, calling these the “first line of defense” against homelessness. DSWD insists its role is simply to support LGU initiatives.

Ricardo De Guzman, chief of staff of Manila mayor Alfredo Lim, told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project the city has one shelter for child beggars and another for adults. These provide support on a long-term basis and address basic needs such as education for the children and healthcare for the elderly.

The problem, however, is that each shelter could only accommodate 200 persons. “Right now, all these shelters are full so we don’t really know where to put everybody else,” said De Guzman.

Alongside the two long-term shelters, the city provides temporary places where street families can stay, eat and rest free for up to a week only. Adults are offered livelihood training while those from the provinces are given tickets back home and a small allowance to help them start anew.

The city has set up a system to monitor the beggars as soon as they step out of the shelters. Unfortunately, some of those given assistance to go home have returned to the same streets where the police found them, says De Guzman.

DSWD under-secretary Alicia Bala says the proliferation of beggars stems from widespread poverty, “These street-dwellers go back to their province, try to start anew with their new skills, but there is no economic activity there so they come back to Manila.”

Bala says this is true not only for street-dwellers in Ermita but for all those across Manila. Other highly-urbanised areas around the country like Davao and Cebu have the same dilemma, she says.

The government’s Council for the Welfare of Children, CWC, admits efforts of government and non-government agencies to provide services for those people and families living on the street “never seem to be enough”.

There are now some 350 agencies responding to an estimated 45,000 street-children and their families nationwide, says CWC. Five per cent of the children are said to have suffered abuse or have engaged in illegal activities such as dealing drugs.

CWC maintains that as long as there are not enough jobs being made available, children will continue to live on the street.

But De Guzman is not wholly persuaded that poverty breeds begging and street dwelling. It could also be about choice, he suggests.

“Sometimes, it’s not all about how much the government and other people have provided you, it’s also about how much you are willing to give to change your life,” he said.

He speaks instances where parents sit happily under the shade of a tree to gamble or play cards while their children are out in the heat, begging. There are also a number of cases when parents are the ones pushing and teaching their kids to beg. Indeed, recently, Manila city council passed a law penalising parents and guardians of children who were forced to beg or work on the streets.

Claire Delfin is a television news reporter with the GMA Network.

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