Thursday, April 9, 2009

On the street whey they live: From Paraiso to Paris

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Feature/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
MANILA, Philippines – From the time they met some five years ago, Marvin Benosa and partner Pamela, both in their early 30s, have been living on the streets of Manila. They have been cohabiting, procreating, and raising their two children, one aged 3 years, the other, 10 months, in the outdoors. Namamasura (scavenging) is how Marvin describes his way of earning a living.

Elizabeth Sanchez, 38, also lives on the street and sells cigarettes for a living. Last year, doctors at the Ospital ng Maynila discovered she had Stage 4 breast cancer and performed radical mastectomy. Through Operation Tulong, she went through chemotherapy. Still bald because of the therapy, Elizabeth says she hopes she could have radiotherapy and find a source of livelihood. She recently lost to thieves all the stuff she used to peddle on the streets.

William Atutubo, 44, and wife Divina, 42, are also street dwellers. Their two daughters, aged 16 and 14, live in Cavite with relatives. William earns by driving a pedicab which also serves as a shelter at night.

Not a walk in park
Emeterio Laguidao, 49, and wife Teresita, 47, have a wooden kariton (pushcart) for a home. They make a living by scavenging. Their youngest daughter, 10, stays with them; another is with relatives. Their eldest lives with nuns but may have to leave soon after she graduates from elementary school. The Laguidaos had been forced to live on the street after being ejected from their shack on Orosa Street which was scheduled for demolition.

Rosario Calzado, 42, lives on the street because she has nowhere else to go. She recently worked as a maid in Fairview but left her employers because she didn’t like being left alone in the house.

All of them are “residents” of Paraiso ng Kabataan ng Maynila in Manila’s Malate district, where volunteers of Tuluyan Drop-In Center for street families found them. Paraiso is a children’s park near the Manila Zoo.

Not home for homeless
These Paraiso “residents” have all been invited to Tuluyan. The center is at the end of Paris Street, just off Leon Guinto Street. It is run by the Benedictine Sisters who also run St. Scholastica’s College which is a few blocks away. The Filipino word tuluyan literally means a place to stay.

Opened late last year, Tuluyan is not a soup kitchen or a home for the homeless. It is meant to be a temporary haven in the daytime, a place where the homeless could rest awhile, wash themselves and their clothes, use the bathroom and even cook meals. There is food for those without food. The place is neat and well-lighted.

Sr. Cecille Ido OSB, head of the Benedictine Sisters’ nationwide Socio-pastoral Apostolate, says the shelter also offers the homeless opportunities for formation, leadership and skills training which would equip them for life, rehabilitate and help them regain self-respect.

Such intervention could give the homeless an economic boost, help them consider other options or even assist them in returning to their home provinces if and when they do decide to go home. Tuluyan is developing a referral system with other social agencies for services that are beyond the center’s limited means. A street children’s library is also being planned.

This first batch of clients knows that Tuluyan is not meant for night lodging.

“They know when it is time to leave,” Sr. Cecille says. Still, it pains her to see them go at day’s end and back to the streets.

“They leave Tuluyan clean and orderly,” she adds. They are back in no time.

“We are like a family,” Elizabeth says. Alone in the city, she and others like her easily bond with street families. They care and watch out for each other. At night, they are back and huddled together in a secluded spot somewhere in Paraiso. Their pet dogs give them security.

Marvin breaks into tears when he recalls how his family was rounded up by the police and brought to a center in Marikina where they were made to feel like prison inmates. The police had been rounding up street families, confiscating pushcarts used for scavenging.

When Tuluyan volunteers first invited them over, Marvin says he was afraid they would again be cooped up and treated like prisoners. His fears did not materialize and he and his brood have been coming to Tuluyan regularly.

Cat and mouse
Playing cat-and-mouse with the police has been the street dwellers’ lot and so they keep on moving. Along the way, they pick up recyclable items such as soda cans, plastic, paper and metal to sell to junk shops. The price of junk has plummeted, the scavengers lament, and they have no access to the garbage from fast-food chains because there are haulers that collect them. Marvin says on a good week, he could earn P1,000 from scavenging.

Elizabeth, the cancer survivor, says that with all her stuff stolen, she is left with nothing to sell. She now earns by watching cars parked on the streets of Malate. Being without family in Manila and with her health problems, does she want to go home to the province? Her answer: “I don’t want to be a burden to my family.”

It is not just poverty that plagues street dwellers. Their problems are complex. There are other issues that need to be addressed and resolved. Each one has a story to tell, a journey to make.

Why does Rosario prefer to live on the street than work as maid which earned for her P3,200 a month? Why does Elizabeth not want to go home to Bicol? Will the able-bodied Atutubos and Laguidaos not want to start over somewhere, given a chance? Will Marvin and Pamela beget more children living on the street?

Not in the census
Sr. Cecille says street families are not included in the census because they are mobile. What are the figures nationwide? She cites the Social Weather Stations (SWS) June 2008 survey statistics that showed 14.5 million people experienced involuntary hunger between April and June 2008. Severe hunger went up from 3.2 percent to 4.2 percent. These denizens of the streets give a face to the cold statistics; they are the voices that are not heard.

Street children who look hapless and vulnerable easily get the attention of service-oriented institutions; they are the objects of concern of do-gooders and bleeding hearts. But what of the street families? That’s another story. They are looked upon with disdain or as irresponsible begetters of children with no future.

Tuluyan is not the answer to the root cause of homelessness and extreme poverty. It is only one among the varied ministries of the Benedictine Sisters, and as the newest one, it bears watching.

Catching their breath
For now, in a small way, it gives hope and rest to weary individuals and families who are out there shivering from the cold and baking in the heat. It gives them a chance to catch their breath and their bearings. Hopefully, Tuluyan’s programs will help them cross the poverty line and see them make it to the other side.