Realities of Poverty series: The life of a squatter family
This is the first in a series of stories focusing on the challenges of finding adequate, affordable housing in the economically developing world. It originally appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of our print publication Living Unbound.
The United Nations estimates that at least one in eight people living on Earth today resides in a slum. A high percentage of those are squatters, dwelling without permission or legal protection on land they don’t own. Left with little or no choice, some erect makeshift housing on public properties, some occupy abandoned buildings and some inhabit any space they can find. Most live in extreme poverty and are, for all practical purposes, ignored by their local governments.
Calvary Hill is a street that winds along the banks of the fetid Ermitaño Creek in the heart of metropolitan Manila. This is a squatter village and, as the name suggests, it’s a place of hardship. A row of ramshackle dwellings stacked two, three and sometimes four or more stories high stretches around the creek bend and out of view, like a house of cards made from a thousand crumpled, mismatched decks.
Alliannah, who’s 12 years old and likes to be called An-An, lives with her parents and three siblings in the squatter village. She became sponsored through Unbound in 2015.
An-An’s family lives in a fourth-floor annex of a building that, until they arrived, had only three floors. The small apartment, barely large enough for the family of six to sleep in, was built by her father, Ryan, with the help of neighbors. Ironically, because it matches no other structure in sight, it fits right in with the surroundings.
Stacking new dwellings on top of old ones is common in the flood-prone Philippines, especially in communities built as close to water as Calvary Hill. As with most decisions the poor are forced to make, the choice to live higher up is a tradeoff. While it offers protection from the rising waters brought on by the typhoons that perpetually threaten the islands, it also makes those who live there more vulnerable to the accompanying winds.
“Because the wind is strong, our house dances with the wind,” Said Ely, An-An’s mother. “My children go down immediately because they are afraid that our house might be destroyed. We don’t go upstairs anymore [during a storm]. The foundation of our house is really weak. … that’s why we are afraid if the wind is strong.”
When the storms are especially intense, the family evacuates, along with others in the area, to a nearby church. After the danger has passed they go through the frightening, familiar routine of discovering whether or not they still have a home and, if so, whether or not their belongings are still there. Such is the reality of the transient poor.
The Philippine government offers relocation services for some squatters but, again, there are tradeoffs. The relocation sites are generally far away from the urban core where most of Manila’s working poor, including Ryan and Ely, earn their livings. (He’s a chauffeur and she takes in laundry.) Transportation back and forth would be expensive, not only in terms of money but also in precious work time. Moving would give them no choice but to try to find new employment in a less populous area with fewer opportunities. But for the working poor, a job in hand isn’t easily surrendered.
“It’d be really hard to live [in a relocation site], far from what we need and to start all over again,” Ely said. “We know our area already, near the hospital, the market and the school. I feel afraid [about] what would be our situation there, a totally new environment, and it is also far from the work of my husband. That’s why I really feel afraid.”
Moving would also mean pulling the children from the school they now attend to start again in an unknown environment. Ely, who had to drop out of school as a teenager in order to help support her family, is reluctant to make such a disruption in their lives.
“My dream for them is to finish their studies,” she said. “It’s hard if they grow up without it, most especially if I’m already gone in this world. They cannot find a good job with a big salary if they don’t have education, like me. I want them to finish their studies while I’m still here.”
Ely is grateful to the Unbound community and to An-An’s sponsors for easing the family’s financial burden.
“I am really thankful … because you really help us a lot,” she said. “I cannot afford to buy their things in school. I have four children and they all need to buy school supplies. My husband’s salary is too small, which is not enough even for us in a week. … If I didn’t have a chance to be part of this organization, I would not have the opportunity to attend meetings and trainings and for my child to have an annual physical examination.”
The meetings she refers to are those of the local Unbound mothers group. Such groups have become a cornerstone of the sponsorship program in each of the countries where Unbound works, and a valuable source of support and encouragement for families striving to lift themselves out of poverty.
“I really see a big change in our lives,” Ely said. “Before, my husband and I always argue for something specifically about financial aspects and the children’s need to have something. But now, because of Unbound, if I need money, I just withdraw from our savings. So thank you so much for your help.”
For a family living the tenuous life of squatters in a house-of-cards village built on a floodplain, belonging to the Unbound community is a precious commodity. It’s also one of the few things in life they can rely on.