The Mission Office of the SVD Australian Province is supporting a magnificent program in The Philippines which helps to move families off rubbish dumps and into housing and sustainable development. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, the AUS Mission Office has been able to provide the financial resources to build 40 houses for homeless Filipino families in Cebu. The AUS Province Mission Secretary, Fr Henry Adler SVD recently visited the project, and explains the hope he found there.
By Fr Henry Adler SVD
If I was to identify two things that struck me during my recent visit to the Philippines, without hesitation I would say poverty and children. Children and poverty seem to be everywhere. Children are part of the landscape and poverty is their daily reality. They hang around airports and shopping centres, markets and major traffic islands. They sell things, beg for money or food, collect garbage or offer to wash the windscreen of your car. For a few Pesos they will show you the way or carry your bag, sell you a newspaper, a soft drink or cigarettes. They are there day and night, following you. They live in the streets, markets or cemeteries, using cardboard for their bed, a filthy bench or the cemetery. They dig through garbage, praying to find food to fill their empty stomachs.
There are four large rubbish dumpsites in Cebu with more than 5000 people living and scavenging for scrubs of good, plastic bags, cardboards etc. The Umapad dumpsite is in the middle of Mandaue City in the larger Cebu metropolitan area. The site has recently been officially closed down, but trucks loaded with rubbish are still coming and even though scavenging on the site is illegal, more than 300 families still live on site and make their living off the rubbish.
For these 5000 in Cebu the garbage tip is their home. All their life is about surviving to the next day. From early in the morning till late in the evening they poke around for reusable materials which are then sold to recycling firms for small money. Tin cans are sold at Peso 8 per kilogram and white plastic bags, Peso 3 per kilogram. Some of the rescued material is used to build, mend or improve their dump site accommodation. Houses, or huts made of garbage are all they have. Poverty brought them here to experience more poverty.
The scavenger families come from the rural areas to the big city, hoping for a job and a better life. They get here and realize there is nothing for them. They have no education, and Cebu City has no jobs for them. Soon, their savings run out and they go to where they know there’s money: the dumpsite.
The average family size is seven or eight people with the average income for the household of $1.50. Children are expected to help the family to put bread on the table, so they scavenge alongside their parents or family members. As a result, many of them do not attend school or their attendance is sporadic. Wet season is a time of sickness and disease, as their human waste, mixed with mud, floods their homes, bringing with it all kinds of illnesses, including pneumonia, diarrhoea and dehydration. Garbage dumps trap thousands in unseen but all too real detention camps of chronic hunger, anemia, TB or blindness from lack of vitamins. Lack of schooling welds the escape hatches shut.
Fr Heinz Kuluke SVD, the newly appointed Secretary-General, has been working with the poorest of the poor in Cebu for 25 years. He visits the dumpsite every Saturday to celebrate Mass with his friends, listen to their stories, do basic health check-ups, and give away medicines and sweets to children. The great majority of the Mass attendants are children. Despite the misery seen everywhere, toxic fumes and thick smoke from fires and the overpowering stench of rotting food, faeces, and methane gas coming from underneath metres of rubbish, strangely the Eucharistic celebration presided over by Fr Heinz is an experience of joy and hope.
When I first saw children scraping through tons of rotting garbage, I saw helplessness. Families living on a day to day basis; nothing is about the future; everything is about finding food just for this day, for now. And that is a dreadful way to live, when you think that’s the way they have to live for the rest of their life. The future doesn’t exist or is too scary or depressing to look forward to, so it is the present moment that is lived.
In 1999, Heinz Kuluke founded the NGO Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation – Integrated Development Center Inc (JPIC–IDC) to help the poor in Cebu, particularly scavengers, street children and young girls in red-light districts. Among its programs are pre-school education, and sponsorship for elementary, high school and professional training in vocational schools, colleges and universities. In addition there are nutrition, medical, alternative livelihood, community building and resettlement projects helping victims of poverty to stand back on their feet.
I was fortunate to spend a few days visiting projects run by JPIC-IDC, and to see for myself the various successful rehousing projects and the way they work with the local community to build up mutual trust and to empower the people to organise themselves. With the help of volunteer professionals the JPIC-ICD has built entire new villages from scratch. They prepared the site development and helped construct a community centre. Together with experts on skill development they trained the families to start micro-finance cooperatives in sustainable ecological farming, livestock breeding and handicrafts, so that the families could make a living and sustain themselves in a healthy way. More villages are now under construction. Many of the relocated kids are not working on the dumpsite anymore, but are going to school instead.
The Australian SVD Mission Office, thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, got involved in this wonderful project by providing financial resources to build 40 houses for homeless Filipino families in Cebu. San Pio Village is the name of this Cebu-Dumlog Village project. The dream of the JIPC-IDC staff and the hope of many homeless families is to build up to 360 housing units. We pray that the dream will come true and that hope for a better future will never fade away.