[IRL] STILL NO ROOM AT THE INN
By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
I first spoke with a homeless person in the pre-pandemic holiday season. She was a middle-aged woman, who slept in her son’s parked jeep, after his daily pasada. Her son had a tiny rented room in Tatalon for himself, his wife and their four children, but there was no space for his mother. Aling Teresing was still strong enough back then, to spend her days scrounging for garbage food scraps and kalakal, i.e., any recyclable trash a junk shop might buy. Whatever money she earned, went to buy her own food and Perla soap to wash both her body and clothes.
I met Aling Teresing in the visitors’ parlor of my old school’s convent. She was selling foot rugs with a holiday print of Santa-suited teddy bears and candy canes. The nuns weren’t buying, but would give her dinner. She explained to me how she had bought 12 foot rugs at the Galas Market, enumerating her expenses for her jeepney fare, her alitanghap, and for the foot rugs themselves. She asked me to buy her three remaining foot rugs, explaining that her P10 profit off each rug would let her eat for the next day. Her full day’s labor had netted her less than a P100.
During our extreme pandemic lockdowns, Aling Teresing’s son, like thousands of other jeepney drivers, would have lost his only source of income for several months. Unable to pay his rent, he would have ended up living in his jeepney with his wife, their four children, and all their worldly possessions, displacing Aling Teresing yet again. I wonder if she has even survived.
There are around 4.5 million homeless, including children, in the Philippines, beaten down by multiple financial crises caused by chronic unemployment, medical bills, homes lost in typhoons or fires, and much domestic violence. That’s apart from the 1.5 million slum dwellers or informal settler families. Multiply that by at least 5 family members each, so approximately 8M politically incorrectly termed iskwater. The homeless and the informal settlers are clustered in the urban areas where there are livelihood opportunities. Disabilities and ailments like TB, bronchial asthma and arthritis prevent many homeless adults from undertaking physically demanding labor. Mental health issues, other than the taong grasa type, or attitude problems, might also be factors for keeping them at the bottom or laylayan.
In my neighborhood, the Kariton Empowerment Center or KEC, teaches the adults among its approximately 120 client homeless families more marketable skills, like small appliance repair and carinderia-style cooking. The ultimate goal would be their forming cooperatives. Volunteers mentor and tutor promising and motivated teens in their academics. A KEC community organizer has helped me to find occasional low-skilled day labor to clean my gutters and yard, for the minimum wage plus lunch and two merienda. KEC gratefully accepts donations of discarded appliances, gadgets, furniture and such. They will even pick these up from your home, if you’re within their pushcart radius. The kariton is their home and their means of livelihood, as they practice solid waste management at the most basic level.
For most of the homeless, the holidays brought the usual gift bags of rice and groceries, or occasional packed meals shared by the better-off. But generally, Christmas and the New Year come and go, just like any other day, which they must struggle through in order to survive and to hold on to the thinnest shreds of human dignity. When the pandemic forced the elderly Holy Spirit nuns to shut down their charitable bathing and laundry facilities for the homeless along Betty Go Belmonte Road, these unfortunates had to resort again to moving their bowels, bathing and washing their clothes, beneath the short concrete bridges scattered throughout our sprawling community. From Kamuning to N. Domingo, these bridges span myriad rivulets which feed into the wide estero at G. Araneta and E. Rodriguez Sr. Avenues.
Life is unstoppable, under the bridges, on the sidewalks and in the kariton dwellings. From beneath such a tiny bridge, clambered two little children each clinging to their mother’s hands while their father followed, holding a baby and a bulging duffel bag. Boyet who parks his kariton by our wall, has taken in Linda, a victim of domestic violence, and her son by another man. Now they are expecting their own baby. Jimmy whose kariton is by the LRT station, does occasional yard work for me. He has one-year old twins by his current partner and four school-age children with his first wife in the province. For the street dwellers, there is no permanent home nor long term tomorrow. They have only each other in this world, so is it any wonder that they cling to each other so. Being a family together is their only home.
Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction--but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.