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Hard life for Manila’s hungry street urchins

They beg all day and risk abuse by those whose job is to protect them

At a busy corner of Roxas Boulevard arcing Manila Bay, Dennis, only 3 years old but spunky, dashes for a jeepney ― a repurposed passenger jeep ― as it waits for the light to turn green.

He dives into the open rear of the vehicle on all fours. With a dirty rag in his hand, he wipes the feet of the passengers, then stands up and starts begging for money. Sometimes, he gets a coin. Sometimes, just a pat on the head. At other times, it may be a scolding. But most of the time, he is ignored.

He jumps off the jeepney just before the traffic light turns green, and then waits for it to turn red again.

A few paces away, his 6-year-old sister Lyka, in clothes two sizes too big, is carrying their year-old brother. She taps on car windows, also asking for money.
Deo says he is 6 years old, yet he looks much younger. Most street children in Manila suffer from malnutrition as their meals largely consist of instant noodles. (The Straits Times)
Deo says he is 6 years old, yet he looks much younger. Most street children in Manila suffer from malnutrition as their meals largely consist of instant noodles. (The Straits Times)

When traffic thins out at their intersection at night, they head for a nearby station of an elevated railway. There, at the foot of the stairs leading out of the station, they again start begging from commuters heading home.

Around midnight, they return to their shack, a push cart with a worn-out tarpaulin for a roof and sackcloth as walls, parked along a breakwater straddling the sea. They sometimes end the day with up to 100 pesos ($2.30), which they hand over to their father.

There is never enough food, no matter how hard they beg, says Lyka. “We are always hungry.”

To take their minds off the gnawing hunger, some children take to sniffing glue.

Her 9-year-old brother, Ramil, was caught doing that once and taken to a “reception and action center.” He left the place two days later with bruises on his arms and a black eye ― which is why, says Lyka, she runs away when she sees anyone from the RAC.

The siblings are just three of some 250,000 street children in the Philippines whose plight attracted much interest during Pope Francis’ recent visit.

The RAC, run by the Manila government, is supposed to be a halfway house where children taken from the streets for vagrancy, drug abuse or petty theft can be processed and transferred to privately run shelters for rehabilitation or sent back to their parents.

But the center and others like it scattered across metropolitan Manila’s 16 cities and one town are no better than “dungeons,” says the Reverend Shay Cullen, head of Preda Foundation and a three-time Nobel Peace prize nominee.

Children are mixed up with adults, and some facilities meant to house just 100 often have four times as many inmates.

“House parents” and older detainees routinely beat up and molest the children.

Case workers from Childhope Philippines, a nongovernmental organization, say they have seen children eating near-rotten fish and vegetables at these centers.

Another RAC in Quezon City north of Manila reportedly locks up especially troublesome children in dog cages.

At the Manila RAC, a 9-year-old girl was said to have been pimped by a traffic constable after she was handed over to him by her stepfather who had raped her.

In another particularly disturbing case at the same center, a boy with mental illness was found lying naked on a cement floor, all skin and bones, his skin dotted with scabies and bruises.

Another boy there was beaten to death a year earlier.

No one was arrested, and none of the center’s staff was charged administratively.

“There’s a system of apathy. There’s a system of allowing abuse to happen,” says Catherine Scerri, deputy director of Bahay Tuluyan (House of Refuge), which runs three privately funded shelters for street children.

It all comes down to a vicious circle of understaffed but overcrowded RACs struggling to feed and care for the children with inadequate funds provided by the local governments.

A paper released by Bahay Tuluyan says a key problem is that the government’s program does not go beyond getting children off the streets.

Mostly, it says, the end goal is to make the city “look more beautiful.” Personnel at the Manila RAC, for instance, routinely round up children near parks, highways, shopping centers and places frequented by tourists.

They let the children go after two days, and round them up again when ordered to, usually when there is a VIP, like the pope or a foreign dignitary, in town.

Alexandra Chapeleau, communications manager of Anak-Tulay ng Kabataan (Child-Bridge to the Youth) Foundation, says “the government is aware of the problem, but it is not putting the right solutions.” The government insists it cannot afford to provide long-term care for the children because it does not have the money for it, she says.

The pope’s recent visit here has brought a renewed interest in the street children.

In one of the most moving images of that visit, 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar broke down before she could finish narrating her hard life and how she had seen other children use drugs and forced to work as prostitutes.

“Why does God let bad things happen to children?” she asked the pope, who had no answer, just a rosary and a grandfatherly embrace.

Poverty continues to drive the poorest in the countryside to move to urban centers, creating even more homeless families, says Childhope’s president Teresita Silva, who has been a social worker for more than four decades.

The population has also been exploding, from 85 million in 2006 to more than 100 million last year, breeding one generation of street children after another.

The pope himself, while reiterating the Church’s opposition to contraceptives during his Philippine visit, has taken issue with Catholics “breeding like rabbits.”

It’s not unusual to see three generations of street children, says Silva. The grandmother had worked the streets, and her grandchildren just take her place.

A street educator who has been helping street children for 18 years says she had a ward who had been a prostitute at Manila’s Malate district when she was just a child.

When the girl got older, she began pimping other younger girls.

A government welfare officer at an orphanage says, “We always wish we’ll have less. We always wish that when one of our children is adopted, no one will come to us to take his place. But that’s not happening.”

Lyka, the street child, has never seen the inside of a school, but she wants to go to one.

But if it means being locked up and not being able to roam freely, she says she will always choose the streets.

“This is home,” she says.

By Raul Dancel

(The Straits Times)