by Rod Rivera
If it is not demolition, when a dialogue doesn’t work, the alternative to uproot the homeless from their informal settlement is burning down their shanties to ashes. In the urbanizing metro every inch of space counts as an asset to have economic use. The land becomes more valuable than people.
The problem of internal migration, population growth and poor distribution of economic opportunities attribute to the increase of informal settlers in metropolitan Manila. Many of these informal settlers migrated into the urban area in hope that they can live a better life with a decent job. They left their provinces because they find life there to be too difficult. They sold their properties to find their selves propertyless in the cities. As the migration continues, it congests the already burgeoning urban population.
Because these people can not afford to pay the rent, lease or buy a house, their only option is to settle in vacated and long unused spaces, and even those places that are inhabitable because of the high risks to human lives. They peg their shanties by the canals, on top of mountains of waste or under the bridge if they could not find a habitable place to live. Some others find the cold comfort of the streets, condemned buildings, carts, on ceilings of waiting sheds, over and under shrubs in public parks.
Two years ago, around a hundred families, in our community were forced to leave their homes, to give way to the construction of a district hospital in the area. The place, known as ‘looban’ to the community, had been their home for more than 40 years. By the law, they deserve the right to settle there. While some left even before the place was demolished, negotiations brought them to an agreement of being paid 20,000 per family which they spent them to collectively get a lot in the south.
There was excitement first, because they finally will have a property that they can call their own. Those who moved to the relocation came back, to rent a room because the place is too far from their livelihood. Others became displaced, sleeping in the cold streets. Now, the ones who have money are buying their lots little by little at a lower price.
Only one holds the mother title, while the displaced contributed much in buying the land. Since they can not pay the other dues to have the lot titled to them, they opt to sell their property. It is unfortunate that the one holding the mother title is not an informal settler, but simply a wealthy man, who watches the people from his ivory tower. It is more saddening to know that these people who dwelled together in the same area could not stand strong as a collective.
In some other cases, fire works to clear an area filled with informal settlers. This is inhumane, but very much convenient for any interested party. It takes off the people not only of their dwelling place, but also of their dignity to live a life they choose. Well, from the beginning there was no dignity in living as an informal settler, because the right to decent life begins in a dignified abode.
Today, a fire at the 5th alarm broke out in Guadalupe, damaging 9 million peso worth of properties, injuring 9 people, and displacing, burned down around 900 houses that provides some dwelling to 2,700 families. The place may be indeed fire prone, because the materials and structures of the shanties there are usually wood. No one from the community’s resident would like to burn their house on fire, no one of them would also like to continue living in a place where their life security is at risk and their dignity is at the dearth.
It is ironic that in the bustling prime city of Makati, there are still these people who clump into place where their lives are at risk. It is a contradiction that this place sits between a funeral chapel that gives the dead a very comfortable space to lie down, and a seminary where the holy finds peace in their soft beds. But, the residents of this community, 2,700 families sardined in 900 houses. How many of them are loyalists to the political dynasty, that they can not be moved to somewhere else that will give them a dignified life?
There is a saying that if there is smoke there is fire. This place has been on fire for so many times. What keeps them to stay in this high risk area should be understood so that proper actions can be taken. They are not to be removed like weeds burned in the fields, if that is the intent. They need a home, the area is the only one they know of , because there are probably no better options offered to them.
If these people are given a chance to a decent housing not far from their livelihood, surely they would leave the place. They will not wait for a demolition or another fire. Let’s take the example of the Catholic Church’s effort to provide the homeless a decent dwelling.
Let’s examine what Gawad Kalinga has been doing or Habitat for Humanity. Let’s go back to the intention of building tenements and bliss. Let’s look at what Singapore has done to use the small space it has, yet still give a chance for space to live in for everyone. Let’s look at our policies and our government’s budget allocation. Let’s examine the numbers of homeless people, their proximity from their employment. Let’s look at giving the people more job opportunities wherever they may be in the country.
There are so many things to be done, and standing away and just looking at the situation of the many homeless in our society will not do anything further. Strategic decisions and actions with long-term implications are needed to change the quality of life of the majority of our people.