“We will defend our houses, we will defend our rights. We have as much right to live in Makati as the rich folk here.”
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — The Makati City government is doing all it can to help the urban poor community residents in Guatemala St., Brgy. San Isidro in Makati.
This is the apparent stand of various city officials and representatives of the Makati local government offices in charge of the operations to demolish some 200 or so dwellings of the urban poor in Guatemala St. The city wants to build a “bigger, better and more beautiful” baranggay hall and a sports complex.
The urban poor residents, however, point out the destruction of their houses is not exactly “helping.”
Beginning August 22, the city government has deployed firetrucks, a demolition team and various staff and employees from city hall’s departments of social work, health and public housing affairs to Guatemala St. Representatives from the Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor (PCUP), as well as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), were also dispatched to the area to assist the operations and to supposedly ensure that the residents’ rights are not violated. The employees, policemen and firetrucks have since established a station in one end of Guatemala St and are said to be poised to remain there during the daylight hours until the street is swept clean of its long-time residents.
Even as they refused to give their names for worry of being misquoted and consequently reprimanded by higher officials, various staff of Makati City hall said the city government was following “by the book” the procedures mandated by the Urban Development and Housing Authority (UDHA) on urban poor community demolitions.
“Representatives from the various departments of the Makati City government are here,” said a member of the social welfare department. “We want to make sure that the residents are given all the possible options from voluntarily vacating their houses to taking advantage of the offer of relocation to a site in Caluan, Laguna,” she said.
The staff explained that residents who voluntarily leave their houses will receive a check for P24,240 ($581) per family and a bag of groceries that is supposed to last for at least three days. The groceries consist of rice, coffee, milk, instant noodles and canned goods. The residents, however, will need to prove that they are bona fide residents of Guatemala St. and their names should also be the city’s registry.
“This is a very reasonable and even generous option that the residents should take,” the staff said.
When asked if the relocation site in Caluan, Laguna is already developed, the best answer the city hall employee could come up with is to say that the houses are “under construction.”
“It’s not as if the Makati government will abandon the residents. The 40-hectare relocation site is still run and managed by the local government, and it’s giving the residents the land where they can build their houses for free. There is space there for at least 400 houses, with each plot measuring 40 square meters. Every year we will hold programs that will benefit the residents like capacity-building seminars, food-for-work and cash-for-work schemes and other livelihood trainings. The city has a social welfare office there,” she said.
But are there houses for the residents?
“The houses are under construction,” she answered with finality, but hastened to add that there are two nearby schools, right within the compound, one grade school and another for high school-aged children. She also said there are water and electricity facilities.
It goes unspoken that there are still no houses, and that residents who take the option of relocating will either have to live as refugees in the aforementioned schools, or put up temporary shelters.
Temporary, however, could means months and even years.
“The land there is very fertile. The residents could plant vegetables,” she said. Then a note of defensiveness creeps into her voice. “It’s really up to the residents what they want to make of their lives. If they work hard and do their best, they can have better lives there — obviously better than what they have here.”
Another staff either from the PCUP or the CHR interjects that the residents’ demands were “beyond reason.”
“They want the city to allow them to stay in Guatemala St. and stop the baranggay hall project. Instead, they want the city to develop the area, build them houses there. It’s not possible, it’s unreasonable,” he said.
According to reports, the Brgy. San Isidro baranggay hall project and sports complex has a budget of P100 million ($2.38 million). The baranggay is not one of the more affluent ones in the city, but it still has many thriving businesses ranging from banks, employment and immigrations agencies, photography, print and publishing houses, and establishments that provide industrial services and equipment, food services and private clinics.
Residents choose to stay and defend their houses
As for the residents led by the Guatemala Neighborhood Association (GNO), they would much rather stay in their shanties and make-shift houses than take the offer of city hall.
“They are not offering us real options. They say we will be given P24,000 ($571), but do they have any idea how long that amount lasts if one has to pay rent? Here we own our houses; here we have work and livelihood. If we move to Calauan, we won’t have anything — no house, no jobs, nothing. The Makati government is attacking our rights and threatening our very survival by driving us out and telling us to move to Calauan,” said Nestor Albarena, 40.
Nestor has lived in Guatemala St. for 22 years. He moved there directly from Samar where life, he said, was very difficult for farmers and settlers. Straight from the pier and a few other Samareños he met on the ship they went to Makati, found the vacant lot that would soon be Guatemala St, and put up their small houses and dwellings. It was there that he met his future wife with whom he has four children, now 18, 16, 12 and eight years old. All attend school, and each of them dependent on the P250 ($5.95) their father earns daily as a pedicab driver.
Nestor shook his head upon hearing the explanations and promises of city hall. He is one of the residents who, upon the invitation of city hall, went to Calauan to see the relocation site. He said there was nothing there but grass and soil.
All he could see was a very difficult, if not impossible, situation; a life that was no life because he and his family would have no house and no access to social services despite the promises that there would eventually be.
“They want to build a multi-purpose hall and a sports complex, but who will benefit from it? The rich residents? What about us poor people? Aren’t we worth helping? We’re being treated like trash, when in truth we do all that we can to live in dignity. We don’t bother anyone, we work hard, and we do our best to raise our families without inconvenience to the rest of Makati,” he said.
His neighbor, Jovito “Potazo, 50, is also saddened by city hall’s reasoning. He also works as a pedicab driver, and his eyes are milky with incipient cataracts.
“There are many vacant lots here in Brgy. San Isidro — why do they have to build the multi-purpose hall where there are already people living and working? Makati is a rich city, it can afford to pick and choose vacant lots. It’s painful to see how little the government and the city officials care for us. They only remembers us when the elections come — shaking our hands, hugging our wives, kissing our babies and begging us to vote for them. Otherwise the rest of the time we’re like garbage in their eyes,” he said.
No to violence
The people’s organizations have issued an alert and a plea to the public to help the residents of Guatemala St. to keep their houses and to ensure that no violence takes place.
Paulo Quiza, deputy secretary-general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (NCR) said there is the possibility that scores would be hurt and hurt badly if the demolition team insists on using force against the community.
“Of course the residents have every right to defend their houses, but they don’t want any violence. There are so many children here — elementary school kids, toddlers and newborns. There are also pregnant women, some of whom are reaching their critical months. The area itself is just one fairly short street, and the police and demolition forces can easily herd the residents or push them into the corners with the use of teargas. We don’t want any violence; the residents are asking the Makati City authorities to show compassion for their plight and allow them to stay,” he said.
Quiza said there was nothing unreasonable about the demands of the residents that city hall develop Guatemala St and provide the residents with houses.
“It’s the responsibility of city hall to provide for its constituents. It can’t say that there are no funds for in-city relocation or on-site development: the city is hell-bent on putting up a new baranggay hall just because the existing one isn’t ‘pretty’ enough and is reportedly the least grand among the baranggay halls in Makati. These are very twisted priorities; it’s inhumane on the part of the city officials to drive out their poorest constituents just so they can put up a sports complex and a mansion-like multi-purpose building,” he said.
Makati City hall has started the countdown for the residents of Guatemala. One of the employees who also refused to be named said the residents will have a maximum of two weeks and a minimum of one to leave or be driven out. According to him, there is no negotiating against the project.
In the meantime, police already guard the area, accosting individuals who come and go, saying that they are on the lookout against “activists” and “outsiders who are agitating the residents against leaving.” These security officials in blue have a look of harshness about them, an air of impatience that is directed against the residents and their “stubbornness.”
Nestor and Bitoy however, are calm.
“We will defend our houses, we will defend our rights. We have as much right to live in Makati as the rich folk here. We’re all voters, and we voted for the officials in city hall because they promised to help the poor. We call on them now to deliver on their promises and stop the plans to destroy our houses and throw us out of the city,” they said.