Like so many others before her, Michelle Sicat, a 28-year-old single mother from the province of Nueva Ecija, had come to Metro Manila to get a job to support her family. She left her daughter with her parents so she could work as a shop assistant in one of the city’s busiest commercial districts. Sicat’s sacrifice was one that many Filipinos from rural areas have to make.
Despite missing home, Sicat was happy to have a job. But then the Covid-19 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. She didn’t care if she had to stand for the journey, or sit on the floor, as long as she could go home.
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.
Before the pandemic, there were already an estimated 3 million homeless people in the city of Manila, largely the result of poverty caused by unemployment. Covid-19 added to the number.
The government deployed social workers to round up homeless people and place them in temporary shelters, which is where Sicat found herself.
It’s where she met Jerwin Mendoza, 36. Mendoza became homeless when the shopping mall where he worked as an electrician closed. Unable to pay for food or lodgings, he was forced to go to a shelter.
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. “After each ceremony, we always hoped to receive something from the donations,” said Mendoza. “But the donations were immediately locked up in the storage room of the facility. I thought we were supposed to enjoy some treats in lieu of the unchanging and bland meals that they served us every day. I don’t know why these shelter volunteers were keeping the donations from us.”
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.
“Keeping us there was a death sentence to those who depend on us,” Sicat said. “My family hasn’t eaten properly because I haven’t been able to send them money. I don’t know what to do.”
People who had taken refuge in the shelter were not allowed to leave unless a family member picked them up, even though roads 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. They didn’t want their families to starve. So, they planned their escape. After three failed attempts that involved beatings from the shelter’s security guards, they were able to scale a wall and jump to freedom.
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. As the government scrambled to contain the virus, people in the streets were saying: “We won’t die from Covid-19 because we’ll die from hunger.”
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. Daily wages ranged from $2 to $11. 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.
Before 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.
Despite his daughter’s pleas for him to come home, Yongco refused. He said he didn’t want to be a burden to his family. It was left to Yongco’s eldest son, who works overseas, to get the family through the pandemic.
Yongco visited food banks to eat. He befriended Father Flaviano “Flavie” Villanueva, of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). 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.
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 15-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.
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. “If we don’t do this, no one will and there will be chaos,” says Marlon.
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.
Behind Manila’s central post office is a dead-end street that by evening transforms into the “sleeping quarters” for hundreds of homeless people. The area is also designated 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. “Our hearts are with the people here. They depend on us and we can’t just leave them,” says Tisay, adding that Marlon turned down a job because it would mean leaving the city. “He chose to stay here for them,” Tisay says with a laugh. “All we need is food for the day to survive. We have no reason to leave as long as we’re able to eat.”
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.
On the other side of Liwasang Bonifacio, Jose Quizon, 33, is starting to rebuild his life. He didn’t make it on to AJKC’s priority list for support, but says he no longer wants to depend on food donations.
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.
When the pandemic started, Chinese Philippine offshore gaming operators halted their operations. Most employees returned to China. Among them was Quizon’s boss, who promised to return once the situation returned to normal. As days passed, Quizon waited for his employer to return. He depleted his savings, could no longer afford rent and was forced to live on the streets.
Unsheltered, alone and famished, Quizon found himself knocking on car windows to beg for loose change. Other beggars would ask him to write signs for them since, unlike most of them, he had a basic education. One day, a few months ago, while begging in front of the park, a car passenger rolled down his window and called to Quizon. “A car honked and the man called me over. He gave me 10 pesos ($0.20) and said: ‘You look like a big, healthy and able man. Why don’t you work, sell a few things, rather than beg for change?”
So, with $3 left of his savings, Jose bought packs of cigarettes and a few bags of sweets and started selling to passersby, as well as to homeless people. In time, he was able to add other items. He now has a modified push cart loaded with bottled water, juices and crisps.
“Begging for change was a rough time for me,” he says. “Having this cart and selling these items is no doubt more fulfilling. I am happy, and I know my old boss would be happy to know how I survived.”
Quizon is usually seen by the park’s fountain in the afternoons, where he was recruited years ago. He is still anticipating his boss’s return.
In August, Metro Manila and nearby provinces underwent another round of strict lockdowns owing to a surge in Delta variant cases. The country’s chief economist estimated that 177, 000 more Filipinos would be thrown into poverty and 444,000 more would lose their jobs in Metro Manila and other high-risk areas as a result of the lockdown, suggesting the likelihood of a further rise in homelessness.
Projections from the Asian Development Bank already showed that poverty in the Philippines had worsened during the pandemic and was set to remain elevated this year.
The bank’s country director Kelly Bird said in April that the crisis would probably “push the Philippine poverty incidence to 20% this year from 16.7% in 2018.”
Government executives and business leaders are optimistic that the economy will rebound once Covid restrictions are eased. They expect poverty to decline as the economy reopens and levels of immunity rise.
The government’s socioeconomic planning secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said that the Philippines could still bring down poverty incidence to its target of 14% by 2022, despite the pandemic. Poverty in the country declined from 23.3% in 2015 to 16.7% in 2018, improving the lives of almost 6 million Filipinos.
“The 14% target is still doable given the anticipated head start and recovery this year,” Chua said. However, he said the government was “monitoring recent developments, such as a surge in the new Covid variants and imposition of stricter quarantine”.
So, will this projected economic recovery be felt by the people seeking refuge at Liwasang Bonifacio? There is cause for optimism. Some employers are returning to the plaza to hire staff. But Sicat, Mendoza, Quizon, Yongco and the Adesas family continue to live day-to-day without knowing what lies ahead.