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As Covid hit, thousands of Filipinos were left trapped in the capital without work. Many ended up on the street and are still waiting to rebuild their lives. L ike so many others before her, Michelle Sicat, a year-old single mother from the province of Nueva Ecija, had come to Metro Manila to get a job to support her family.
Despite missing home, Sicat was happy to have a job. But then the Covid pandemic struck. The Philippine government placed the entire island of Luzon — where the Metro Manila region is located — under the strictest level of lockdown. The restrictions forced most businesses to close. Most people were ordered to stay at home.
Many people — like Sicat — who lived from one payday to another suddenly found themselves without jobs. Without government support, going hungry was a serious threat. Sicat tried to get home. But when she arrived at the bus station, she found there were hordes of people like her already there, desperate to leave Manila. She was willing to queue for hours to get on a bus. But she could not get on a bus. Instead, she found herself, along with others who were now stranded and homeless, taking refuge along the Manila Baywalk — a seaside promenade overlooking Manila Bay. As public transport ceased, the areas near Manila Bay became a refuge to many homeless and stranded people.
Before the pandemic, there were already an estimated 3 million homeless people in the city of Manilalargely the result of poverty caused by unemployment. Covid added to the. The government deployed social workers to round up homeless people and place them in temporary shelters, which is where Sicat found herself. Mendoza became homeless when the shopping mall where he worked as an electrician closed. At first, he thought that living in the shelter would tide him over during the lockdown.
NGOs and private individuals sent provisions. He said that the people running the shelter would ask him — along with others — to pose for photos while receiving boxes of food, clothes, and sanitary items. I thought we were supposed to enjoy some treats in lieu of the unchanging and bland meals that they served us every day.
Neither Mendoza or Sicat ever thought they would end up living in a shelter, which soon became crowded and cramped. The government-run facility was supposed to offer reprieve. Instead, they felt like prisoners, they say.
These pop-up cubicles were supposed to be temporary shelters for those on the streets but felt more like jail cells. People who had taken refuge in the shelter were not allowed to leave unless a family member picked them up, even though ro were blocked and there was no public transport because of lockdown.
Quarantine passes were handed out to make sure that only one person from each house went out to get food and other essential goods. The pair were desperate to leave the shelter to find jobs. So, they planned their escape. Thousands of those stranded in Manila and rendered homeless took refuge in shelters run by churches and private institutions during the early phase of the lockdown in Outside the shelters, the attempted exodus to the provinces continued.
Thousands of people, including returning and laid-off overseas workers, waited in sports arenas, on piers and at airports in the hope of leaving the city. Several local authorities around the country had implemented stringent rules that further prevented many people from going back to their home towns.
Some people were fortunate to slip through checkpoints around Metro Manila to leave the city. Others were left with no option but to stay and cope with the daily struggle of surviving the pandemic. To avoid roundups and being placed in community shelters, homeless people hide in the Liwasang Bonifacio underpass.
After escaping the shelter, but unable to leave Manila, Sicat and Mendoza ended up at the Liwasang Bonifacio underpass in the centre of the city. Before the pandemic, people from the provinces seeking work in Manila would go there. It served as a recruitment centre for those still looking for work. Employers knew to go to the plaza to find cheap labour, and most people staying there managed to get manual work — in small food factories, as stevedores, market helpers and construction workers.
Though earnings were modest, people were at least able to send money to their families, retaining some to pay for food and accommodation. Those who earned the least ate from soup kitchens and slept on park benches. But over lockdown, the jobs dried up. B efore the streets became his home, Alan Yongco, 58, was a mobile phone salesperson. He lost his job because of lockdown. Yongco was so ashamed of being unemployed that he decided to leave his family.
His home was just a few kilometres from where he used to work. Yongco visited food banks to eat. The priest had been offering meals, clothes and temporary refuge for homeless people at the St Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center AJKC in the Santa Cruz area of Manila, until it was closed by officials soon after lockdown for allegedly violating social distancing rules.
With the centre closed, Flavie worried that homeless people would become more susceptible to Covid if they were weak from hunger. He decided on some outreach work. Children, pregnant women, elderly people and those with disabilities are prioritised in the distribution lines. Troublemakers are pushed to the back or denied a donation pack for that day. He asked Yongco to be the lead coordinator in the distribution of food packs, vitamins and hygiene kits — containing soap and face masks — to homeless people. Yongco felt he had found his new purpose in life — helping those in the same circumstances as him.
Yongco asked Marlon and Tisay Adesas to help him serve close to a hundred individuals and several homeless families staying at Liwasang Bonifacio. Marlon and Tisay had both worked at a market but had to stop because of coronavirus travel restrictions.
They had been living with their year-old son in a house shared by three families. But the cramped space became toxic and Marlon would get into fights. To avoid further rows, the family left for a life on the streets. Top right: A Kalinga Center worker distributes face masks as hundreds of people line up to receive food and hygiene packs. Yongco had run out of meal coupons to distribute and had been attacked by an irate homeless person.
The AJKC team created a list of those who would receive support packages — to maintain order and ensure that everything would be distributed properly. It was also to deter hoarding, and prevent other homeless wanderers from following the distribution route in the hope of getting supplies.
The AJKC prioritises the sick, elderly people, and those with families to receive food packs. But as not all homeless people around the underpass could be listed as recipients, Yongco and his fellow volunteers have been threatened and physically attacked. Tisay Adedas tends to a baby rescued from child traffickers.
Illegal adoption of newborn babies from very poor families is widespread. The area is also deated for sick and elderly people. The Adesases manage this area. Whenever someone is ill, Marlon takes them to a nearby health centre for treatment. If medication is required, the couple seek help from local government and officials. A church volunteer distributes a meal of chocolate porridge.
Donations became scarce as the lockdown dragged on. As the pandemic drags on, support for those left homeless and struggling has dwindled. With fewer donations, some NGOs and other institutions have been forced to scale down their operations. O n the other side of Liwasang Bonifacio, Jose Quizon, 33, is starting to rebuild his life. Quizon left his job as a farmhand in Isabela province to seek better opportunities in Manila. At first, he jumped from one job to another until he was hired as an assistant cook at a Chinese restaurant. This brought him financial stability and he was able to provide for his family.
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