Life on the streets of Ermita, still beats life back home in the barrio
She and her family often move from one corner to another but Mary Grace has known no other home except the sidewalks of this tourist district of Manila, a stone’s throw from the US Embassy.
Her parents came to the Philippine capital in the 1980s from Baguio City, 240 kilometers north of Manila, with hopes of finding a better life. But like so many others before and after them, all they found instead were the realities of a harsh life and tried to survive in a city without work. Within days and with no money or prospects for returning home they ended up on the streets, begging, living 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, it is very easy to gather everything up together and run into a nearby church for shelter.
When they feel nature’s calling, they use a nearby public toilet costing PhP 10 (US cents 22) a visit. They also use the showers here while many other street families make do simply with the monsoon rains in the wet season and a hosepipe and soap in the dry months.
Perhaps because they always keep 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 PhP 50 to 100 a day," ($1 to $2)," she told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project. “On some days I get nothing save a handful of coins."
Mary Grace wants a change in 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 says. “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 attracting 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 and help them from returning back to the streets.
“But it seems though all our efforts are futile," complains 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 programs and policies to see what is not working and why.
But the DSWD points to local government units (LGUs) which should give aid to street dwellers, calling these as 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 said the city has one shelter for child beggars and another for the aged beggars. These provide support on a long-term basis and address basic needs such as education for the children and health care 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," says 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 provided livelihood trainings 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 Undersecretary Alicia Bala says the proliferation of beggars is a basic issue of 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 Metro Manila. Other highly-urbanized areas around the country like Davao and Cebu have the same dilemma, she says.
The problem of delivering real and lasting change compelled groups such as Caritas Manila to redirect focus. Until 2004, the Catholic relief organization provided direct services to street dwellers all over Metro Manila.
But review of its program indicated that Caritas only reaped temporary and unsustainable results. It also faced difficulty in tracking and monitoring effects of its services due to the inherent mobility of street dwellers.
Caritas later decided to focus on specific social needs of the poorest families – housing and land tenure, justice, jobs and family, including health and education issues.
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 about 350 of these agencies responding to an estimated 45,000 street children and their families nationwide, CWC says. Five per cent of the children are said to have suffered abuse or have engaged in illegal activities such as dealing drugs.
Services include health and nutrition, educational assistance, effective parenting sessions, livelihood and skills training, residential care, foster and adoption. 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 from the mayor’s office partly disagrees that poverty breeds begging and street dwelling. It could also be about choice, he adds.
“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 recounts incidents where parents sit happily under a shade of 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.
Just last week, the Manila City Council has passed a local law penalizing parents and guardians of children who were forced to beg or work in the streets.
“We never run out of options. All we need to do is think which one is better," De Guzman says as he tries to tell parents to be responsible of their children’s welfare. - Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project
(The author is a television news reporter of GMA Network, Inc. and a regular contributor of special reports on women, children, health, education, and the environment to the network's news and public affairs website, GMANews.TV.)