Written by: Sajid Peña. 12 January 2014
I am a Filipino living in an area of Manila called Malate. The neighbourhood is probably best known as the entertainment district. It is a thriving tourist hotspot, jammed with numerous mid and lower end hotels. Home to a congested galaxy of bars catering to all tastes, massage parlours, money changers, karaoke rooms, eateries, and an increasing number of homeless people.
During my relatively short time of living here (9 years) I have witnessed a concerning growth in the number of families living on the streets. Recently I spent some time taking photos and talking to a few of them to try and understand why they end up here.
Just two blocks from where I live, there are around twelve families sleeping on the sidewalk. Each family has an average of five members. This is just one small community of many. The reason they have settled in this particular spot is that, it is opposite the bay, and near a Pension House, owned by a kindly patron.
The first time I approached a homeless group here, I was surprised by their reaction. The initial family I spoke to were very hostile towards me. They said they didn’t want to talk to anyone. They were suspicious, and believed people only wanted their stories to make money out of them. I tried to explain that wasn’t my aim, but the husband told me to go away. I decided to leave them and look for others that may be more willing. There was another family nearby, but they showed no interest in me. Instead they were concentrating on the piles of empty plastic bottles and scrap cardboard they had collected from the streets, and were now sorting ready to sell on for recycling. I resolved to come back the following day and try again.
When I returned the next day, I took with me three full bags, containing both new T-Shirts and second-hand ladies clothes – a charitable donation from visiting UK friends. I walked back to the same place, where there were around seven or eight families sitting around. I began handing out some of the clothes, and the mother from the day before approached and asked me for some. I gave her a T-shirt. She pushed for more, and it was difficult to share the clothing equally.
An older lady spoke to me. I politely introduced myself and asked her name. She told me she was called Imelda. I respectfully asked if she would be willing to be interviewed. She confirmed she would be happy to chat with me the next day.
The third day I arrived to meet with Imelda, she introduced me to her partner Danny. She told me they had been together twenty years. We sat together and Imelda gave me an insight into life on Manila’s streets.
Imelda is 56 years old, and Danny is 42. Like most the men there, Danny is a pedicab driver (bicycle with sidecar). They don’t own the pedicabs, but rent them for 110 pesos a day (£1.50). The amount they earn varies – on rainy days they get a lot more customers, or very hot days, when commuters are unwilling to walk short distances. On a good day, he told me he makes 300 pesos (£4).
Danny is from Catanduanes, Bicol region. He was left alone with his violent father after his mother died young. He decided to escape his strict father, and hid in the back of fruit lorry, which brought him to Manila. He has lived on the streets ever since, surviving by searching rubbish bins and selling whatever he can find. He did briefly get a small grant from a local politician to attend school. He completed grade 7 - first year of high school, but it was hard with very little money, so he dropped out to try and earn more by collecting/selling garbage.
Imelda is from Bulacan province. After her husband died, she decided to come to Manila to search for her daughter who had left a year or so before. She found her daughter, who was living under the care of Danny. Imelda and Danny fell in love and the daughter met another man. She now lives with this other man on the streets just near Imelda and Danny.
Danny works days and nights looking for passengers, but there are some days when they have none, so he still searches through garbage. They live on M.H.Del Pilar Street, right by a grand condominium block with swimming pools and bay views. Imelda is friendly with a caretaker of a building next door. He sometimes allows her to use the toilet and provides water for washing up. It’s unlikely that any of the homeless families here regularly wash because there is no facility for them. You see many of the kids splashing in the bay, but the water is badly polluted and evidently causes illness and eye problems.
Whilst I was giving Imelda some extra clothes I had with me, to thank her, I could see some of the other women were not very happy. Imelda told me they were envious of her because she was friends with the caretaker. She said they were always watchful, spying on everything. They gossiped and were very jealous if someone received some money or other charity from a passing good Samaritan.
I asked her what she and the others did at Christmas? As it had recently passed, did they all have food together? She smiled and said no, because they were not all friendly here. She told me someone kind had given her a bowl of spaghetti and macaroni salad. She said her and Danny ate it in their little house. She showed me what she meant by little house. It was the pedicab sidecar with covers rolled down on the side. This provides their only form of privacy from the constant openness of living on the street.
After seeing Imelda, I became friendly with another lady called Kelly. She was 39 years old, with 3 children. Kelly first came to Manila from her province in 1994, when she was 19 years old. An agency had arranged for her to get a job working in a restaurant here. She said she had been tricked, as she had to work for five months with no salary to cover the agency’s costs.
On arrival in Manila, Kelly met her first boyfriend. She said they were happy in the beginning, but she was aware that he was a violent man. He was part of a gang, and it wasn’t long before he started to beat her. She was in a very vulnerable position, with no money. It wasn’t until he murdered another gang member that she finally decided to run and get away from him.
Kelly came to Malate area, and began selling cigarettes, candies and crisps on Quirino Avenue to drivers waiting in traffic. She met another man named Marco, and they rented a room on Nakpil St for 300 pesos a month. They got married and eventually moved next to The Ambassador Hotel near Quirino Avenue, paying 700 pesos per month.
When Kelly had her first child – Alex, she said they were very lucky to be living so close to Ospital Ng Maynila. A government hospital that provides free treatment.
In 1995 Kelly and Marco were told that the house they were living in was an illegal dwelling and would be demolished. She said they had nowhere else to go, and eventually the MMDA (Metro Manila Development Authority) came and tore down all the shanty residences. Kelly told me they lost everything they had – all their possessions. The government promised them new housing outside of Manila, in the meantime Kelly and Marco began sleeping rough on M.H. Del Pilar Street where other homeless families had settled. Now 19 years later, they are still living on the same patch of sidewalk. Kelly said the government housing never materialised, and now she thinks of this small piece of grey cracked concrete as home. She said ‘It’s our place.’ They sweep it, they keep it tidy and orderly. Stacking their meagre belongings on a wall behind them.
Over the years since Kelly has been on Del Pilar St, many bars and coffee shops have opened up in the nearby area along Roxas Boulevard and the Baywalk. They welcomed this as a good sign, it gave them hope that it would bring more people they could sell to. But the police stopped them from going on to the Baywalk. If they were caught, they would be taken down to the precinct. Kelly believed that the Baywalk was only for rich people, who could afford expensive coffee and nice clothes.
During the period of Mayor Atienza, Kelly said that homeless men were rounded up by the police, and taken to the outskirts of Manila. There they were stripped of their clothes and dumped with no way of returning back.
I asked Kelly about her daily routine. She told me that she would wake at 4am and buy pandesal rolls for her, Marco and her three sons – Alexander 12, Kenneth 9, and Mark Antony 3. She would buy four pandesal for 12 pesos. If she has a few pesos more she will buy a cup of 3in1 coffee and share it with Marco.
Kelly will then prepare the boys for school. Marco usually gets a jug of water for washing from a sympathetic neighbour, but this isn’t always available. Kelly said that even if the boys are unable to take a wash she still sends them to school, as school is more important than washing. Marco will then go out on the pedicab looking for customers.
Marco rents the pedicab from the friendly Pension House. If a day goes past when Marco does not receive any fares, the owner of the Pension House will let him settle up the following day. He sometimes even provides them with spare food.
Kelly usually spends the morning chatting with the other homeless, and then at noon goes to collect the boys. If Marco has had any passengers, she will pick up some lunch from the corner carinderia. If Marco does not have enough, she will only buy lunch for the boys, and a cigarette for herself to curb her hunger.
A typical meal for them is a bowl of plain rice with a small drop of soya sauce or oil on top. Very rarely are they able to have something to accompany the rice. At weekends the Pension House often provides food for them all, and other homeless families arrive from Lunetta to share. Then they sometimes all swim in the bay together.
Kelly told me they have to be constantly wary and alert in case the police come round. If the DSWD (Department of Social and Welfare Development) are with them, then the women and children are taken into custody near City Hall. They are usually held for 5 days and have to pay a bail of 220 pesos. The men are taken to Precinct 5 UN Police Station, and also required to pay 220 pesos bail before being released. Kelly said it’s very hard for them to get the 220 pesos bail, but even worse is that the men are used as human punch bags and beaten by the police; it can be many days before they recover from the bruising. She added that this rarely happened around election time. Kelly thinks that the local politicians and Barangay officers always want to make a good impression in the neighbourhood.
When they are released by the DSWD and return to the street, often other homeless has taken their possessions, and they have to plead to get them back. Kelly was once taken by the DSWD for five days. She asked the DSWD why they are doing this, why are they taking her? She was told that they have to because the government had issued a memorandum stating they should.
The DSWD put them on a workshop that states they will provide new housing, and help them with getting work. But Kelly said that they all know the new homes are miles out of the city, and away from main roads, where there are no jobs, and expensive to cover travel costs.
Kelly was both friendly and at ease with me. She spoke freely, and seemed happy to chat about anything. We even talked about her private life. ‘There is no private life here,’ she laughed. I asked her what she would do if she became pregnant for a fourth time. She replied that she had been negated, and wouldn’t want any more responsibility.
As the sun set over the bay, and I left Kelly for another night on the street, I found my emotions in conflict. It is hard not to feel sympathy for her, but I also struggle to accept her chosen course and reasoning. I know her belief, that the capital’s streets are paved of gold is not unusual, however she appears blinded by it. She has spent almost 20 years living on the street and still remains positive. Is this positivity admirable, or sadly misplaced? A large proportion of Filipino’s (me included) living and working in Manila come from the provinces. Life there may be simpler, but there is always enough food, family support, schooling and shelter. Our essential things to survive are in no shortage. Those that leave, do so with a motivation to achieve much more, either in education or work, and do so with the knowledge that they can always return.