Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy children, hungry children

by Denis Murphy

Fr. James Donelan, former president of Ateneo de Manila, once said at a meeting of Jesuits that when he arrived in the Philippines as a young man, he fell in love with the country’s sunsets and children. The children are as handsome and pretty as any in the world, but no other children can match their friendliness and sense of humor. They somehow see the funny things about all of us. It is painful, therefore, to see a picture of these children on the front page of this paper begging, with their hands out, for food behind a sign that reads “Help us here.”

It’s not just the children of Compostela Valley that are at risk. There are at least one million children in Metro Manila’s slums, in congested and unhealthy housing, often malnourished, and studying in overcrowded classrooms without sufficient textbooks that guarantee a life of poverty. The same can be said of poor children in the rural areas, on mountains and in our fishing villages. The abuse of our children is on a catastrophic scale. It is a form of genocide.

This situation need not continue. Children are resilient; they respond vividly to good care and teaching.

We saw this happen with 30 young boys and girls from Metro Manila’s urban poor areas who starred in a recent play of Peta titled “Maryosep.” Peta had tryouts in September in the poor areas. The children that came were like all poor children: Some were shy; the girls seemed more athletic than girls elsewhere, but were just as pretty. Three months later they appeared on stage, singing and dancing before big crowds. They told their story in song and dance, and they were spellbinding. They had become poised, confident young people. After the final show they mixed with the audience made up of college students, professionals, and the rich and influential friends of the poor. Here, too, they shone. It warmed our hearts to see them so happy and confident.

There are other examples: Sr. Felicitas de Lima runs a home in Iriga for 145 orphans (true orphans, children from families too poor to feed them, the children of Negritos living on Mount Iriga, disturbed children, and sexually abused children). Almost single-handedly, she and a small group of young sisters provide love, food, education and a true home for these children of the poor. The children care for one another; they all learn a marketable skill. They finish high school and go to college. They learn how to raise pigs, and plant fruit trees and vegetables in the most modern ways. They pray together and play together and help one another, and smile and sing. Being there among the children for a few days is a taste of the peace and camaraderie that life should have for all.

Sister Itat’s center has a motto: “We make useless things useful.” It is inelegant, but the sisters really do just that: They begin with the poorest and least promising of rural children and fashion them into fine young adults.

A tutorial center in Baseco run by the Urban Poor Associates for fifth- and sixth-graders takes only students with grades averaging below 80, but recently saw one of its graduates win first honors in high school.

We will be able to save this generation of our young people if we put our minds to it. It is Christmas time. Surprising things have happened at Christmas. It is a time for out-of-the-box thinking. Wasn’t the thinking behind the first Christmas the greatest out-of-the-box thinking ever?

December in the Holy Land is very cold. The stable or stable-cave where Joseph and Mary ended up was cold and had the rancid smell of animals. We stand to the side in the dim light and watch the young mother nurse her baby. God became a poor child. In the light of that vision, let us walk with God along Roxas Boulevard.

When God sees the vast stretches of land reclaimed in Manila Bay, does He say, “What a great place this can be for a gambling casino paradise”? Does He plan for luxury housing surrounding the casinos? Or does He think, “Here is a place where I can settle my poor people”? And not just the impoverished families, but also the outcasts, the physically incapacitated, the blind and deaf, the despondent—the same people Jesus sought out in His lifetime. On the reclaimed land He sees top-flight schools, swimming pools where the children’s bodies glisten in the sun and water, athletic fields, and schools for special and gifted children.

When He sees an empty lot, does He think, “There’s a great place for a mall or a parking lot”? Or does He imagine a playground and a small park where the old people can sit in the shade of trees with one another, or, as Bishop Julio Labayen, now in retirement, told us recently, “I sit in the mornings looking at the trees; I see God in them”?

When God sees a family asleep at night, huddled near their kariton in the tall grass along the wall of the V. Luna Hospital, does He just think something must be done about the poor families and walk on, or does He go over, put a blanket over the children, and make sure they are not too near the street where they may be hit by a car?

We can learn from Bethlehem the value of our children.

Unfortunately, our children are at risk. Christmas tells us we must do a better job of caring for them. Can we at least end malnutrition among them?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Friday, December 7, 2012

Staging Urban Poor Search for Decent Homes

News Release

About 50 urban poor actors/actresses on stage unfold their lives and dreams for decent housing. December 7, Urban Poor Associates (UPA) and Community Organizer Multiversity (COM) together with Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) held their annual Panunuluyan of the urban poor in the form of a play entitled, “Maryosep”.

Since 1987, the group celebrated panunuluyan through mass mobilizations of poor people. This year instead of marching in the streets and knocking at the doors of government offices, churches and private institutions, they decided that a play was a better form of communicating the struggles of the poor and their on-site housing proposals.

“Maryosep” is the story of Joseph and Mary’s search for a place where Jesus could be born. This time the people playing Joseph and Mary look at poor families’ housing and wonder how they can stay even for a short time in such poverty.

Maryosep has three major stories connected by three gays who accept the pregnant Mary and Joseph in their community. The first act is the story of teenagers in urban poor area. Ella is the main character who was asked to watch out for the relief goods of a friend’s lola, but found it was stolen under her care. She saw the thieves but didn’t do anything until she realized how valuable the relief goods were to her Lola’s friend. Through her help the thieves were put in jail.

The second story is about the children of poor and rich community entitled, “ Kabilang Bakod.” Our urban poor child age 9 and Milcah Wynn Nacion, a GMA artist, lead the play. It lets us see how different the lives of these poor and rich children are, but no matter the class differences, friendship can bind the two small children together.

The last story is the search of a teacher for a poor student named Hope, who was very bright and wanted to be a successful career woman, but a few months before the graduation this student suddenly disappeared. The teacher tries to find her in the Fish Port Area and a relocation site. She finds out about a violent demolition that gobbled down the dreams of Hope, and she eventually will end up to be like her Sister Aling Hing, marrying at a young age and doomed to poverty.

Part of Teacher Faith’s monologue, “A person doesn’t need to be a legal expert and researcher to understand what these poor families live through. We only have to be human.”

After the play, Atty. Leni Robredo and Secretary Mar Roxas presented the Urban Poor Person of the Year Award to architects who devoted pro bono service to help urban poor communities design their homes.

The awardees are Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox who initiated the on-site housing design for the estero dwellers; Michael Roy Cuerpo helped Doña Imelda community in their on-site housing; TAO Pilipinas, a non-government organization that assists urban poor in their efforts to find better housing, and Mapua Institute of Technology, School of Architecture, Industrial Design and the Built Enviroment, one of the country’s finest schools of architecture, assisted four esteros in Manila and Baseco in the full implementation of the project.

In parting, Alice Murphy said, “We appeal to the President to implement this project this December. This will be the best gift he can give to hundreds of urban poor families hoping for the realization of this housing project.” -30-

Monday, December 3, 2012

The triple-jump fish

By Denis Murphy

  The fish in the frying pan began to worry as he felt the pan grow warm. When it was hot, he said to himself, “This is not a good place for me,” and, gathering his strength, jumped out of the pan and into the fire. He quickly realized the fire was also not a place for him. Again he gathered his strength—it was harder this time—and jumped from the fire all the way to the edge of the estero. “Now I’m safe,” he said. But the people there told him no one is allowed within three meters of the water, and both people and fish found that they would be sent to Calauan 100 kilometers away. The fish quickly made one last effort and landed in the refreshing waters of the estero, newly cleaned by the people living on the banks. They called him the “3-jump fish.”

This is a parable about the urban poor. Like the fish they tried to improve their lives by jumping—including the advocacy, lobbying, rallies and prayers that make change possible. First they struggled to “jump” from distant relocation to “in-city or near-city” relocation, where they would be near the jobs they had. This effort bore fruit in the “Covenant with the Urban Poor” in which President Aquino promised: “We will end illegal forced evictions. We will not allow any public or private authority to evict families and leave them homeless in the street. The government must provide decent relocation, near-city or in-city, if possible, quality housing, adequate basic services and jobs.”

Now poor people once threatened with eviction can build permanent homes along the esteros and rivers where they used to live in dangerous conditions. All is not well, of course. The fish went from the frying pan into the fire; the poor went from their old relatively cost-free lives into the middle-class world of high costs for land and construction. The poor can’t afford these costs, and neither, it seems, can society afford the huge subsidies necessary to house the poor in the city if land and construction costs remain as they are.

The least expensive unit in a five-story walkup building (called “medium-rise building”) is about P400,000. Poor families say they can pay about P500 a month. At that rate, setting aside interest rates, it will take the poor family 66 years to amortize the unit. And then there is the land cost. Even if the government manages to assemble the necessary subsidy funds for the urban poor, thousands of other families—teachers, policemen and soldiers, among them—will want the same subsidies. “What about us?” they’ll demand. Such a reaction is understandable. Less understandable is the negative reaction of many national and local officials to in-city relocation, and the age-old bias of the middle class against the poor.

The poor’s first jump was a step forward in many ways—it safeguarded jobs—but it was not the total solution. Where will they jump next? They will need to land in a place that has radically different land and construction policies. One example may be a policy requiring all government-owned or -controlled land that has lain idle for more than 10 years to be given to house the poor. There is a similar requirement in the 1992 Urban Development and Housing Act (Udha), but the turnover to the poor is left to the President’s discretion. A proposed amendment to Udha is that the turnover be automatic.

A good illustration of the usefulness of this policy is the dilemma involving 87 hectares of idle government-owned land in Quezon City, where thousands of poor families seek a small piece of land for their home. Mayor Herbert Bautista told a group of World Bank and Social Housing Finance Corp. people that he had tried to get this land for social housing, to no avail. The land is controlled by the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corp. Why can’t it be turned over to housing? Some 25,000 poor families will benefit.

The new site should also be covered by an effective expropriation policy that can expertly bring about deals, including land sharing, with government agencies and private owners, and go after idle land like a hungry lion looking for his dinner.

In the Covenant’s “in-city or near-city” relocation, the operative phrase may soon be “near-city.” For now the task is to provide concrete examples of in-city relocation so that it becomes a real alternative in all discussions and planning. Perhaps the next site for the poor is a place that interprets the phrase “near-city” in a very positive manner.

What about construction costs? A five-story walkup will still cost P400,000 per unit. Perhaps it is time to let the poor build their own homes under professional supervision. Starter homes can be built for as low as P20,000 per family. It is a solution that requires only marginally more land than a series of five-story walkups. Houses of one or two stories on a small piece of land are what the poor really want. The search for land must intensify.

An attempt at upgrading a poor community through starter homes is underway in Baseco, Manila.

After these two great leaps, the poor will be in decent housing near their work. Will they be happy? Not completely; after all, they are human. They need better jobs. Now they are scavengers, vendors, pedicab drivers, casual workers, unskilled construction workers. They want better retraining for themselves, better schools for their children, and better health services. They will want their own political party. They must, therefore, jump one more time into a society where they are treated fairly and where their voice is respected.

There is an Olympic athletic event called the triple jump: It consists of a hop, a skip and a jump. It is recommended for all groups of people, not only the urban poor. A good athlete can cover over 50 feet in such a leap. The world record holder is Jonathan Edwards of Britain, with a jump of 18.29 meters.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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