by Raul Agner
They won’t miss the stench of the filthy estero, or the hazards that lurked within the slum area, like the fire that burned down some shanties and fast tracked their transfer in the first place. Now settled in a relocation site in Calauan, Laguna – where there’s elbowroom for kids to play in and an endless supply of fresh country air to inhale – the former squatters whose makeshift dwellings straddled the banks along Adamson University and three other schools are now better off.
Ergo, they don’t need help anymore? Wrong. The process of adapting to a new environment, the search for a means of livelihood and a whole new set of adjustments are problems they will have to cope up with. They need as much help now as when the relocation was yet being planned and in progress.
The Estero de Balete is a big stream branching west from the Pasig River to a dead end at Taft Ave. It was home to some 48 families living in stilt-propped shacks at the back of the Adamson University (AdU) Gym and Sta. Isabel College (SIC) and beside the Technological University of the Philippines (TUP) and Philippine Normal University (PNU). On January 17, 2008, a big fire razed several barong-barong, leaving some 17 families homeless. Adamson University offered a vacant corner within its campus as their temporary shelter.
After the fire, City Hall and barangay officials visited the squatters. Their knee-jerk solution was to clear the estero of all dwellers, fire victim or not. Playing kibitzer at first, Fr. Nonong Fajardo, C.M., balked at the idea upon learning that City Hall’s Department of Public Services had no relocation plan at all but to leave the informal settlers to fend off for themselves. "That cannot be!," was Fr. Nonong’s curt reply, to which a DPS official retorted "Who are you, anyway?" That’s when he introduced himself as the Director of Adamson University’s Integrated Community Extension Services (ICES). Unknown to them, the hefty kibitzer was a veteran of relocation negotiations who had helped informal settlers along the railway tracks get a fair deal from the government. Obviously, they didn’t know "Fr. Riles."
Feeling that he could hack the impasse with the help of private and government sector contacts, he called for the convening of an inter-agency committee to meet with Mayor Fred Lim at the Manila City Hall. That committee was composed of representatives from the City Government of Manila, the Office for Religious Affairs in Malacañang, the Manila Health Department, the Barangay Chairman and Council, the City Engineer’s Office, the MMDA, the NHA, the Presidential Commission on Urban Poor, the PNP, the DSWD, the DepEd, SIC, PNU, TUP, other SMI-IC member-schools and the AdU community. Thankfully, the meeting led to the orderly and coordinated relocation of the estero community to an NHA site in Calauan, Laguna. Aside from the committee, other groups extended help: the Congregation of the Mission, Caritas Manila, Urban Settlement Office, Department of Public Services, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, and the Vincentian Family Multi-Purpose Coop. The Adamson community raised Php20,000. The College of Nursing conducted a Medical Mission together with the Health Services Department. The Junior Management Association organized a feeding activity.
With this well-orchestrated assistance coming from different sectors, the relocation process was carried out with unprecedented speed and orderliness. Even before relocation, the planners foresaw the problem of adjusting to and sustaining a new life in the new setting. Organizations like the Vincentian Family Multi-Purpose Cooperative, Caritas Manila, the Diocese of San Pablo, and the Vincentian Center for Social Responsibility have set up programs to help the relocatees rebuild their lives in the new setting.
For Fr. Nonong, who also heads AdU-ICES’s VCSR and is coordinator for the Archdiocese of Manila Housing Ministry, the Estero de Balete case is a good model for future relocation undertakings. Three-phased, it consisted of pre-relocation planning, the relocation proper, and post-relocation follow-up programs. Priests in parishes with squatter communities, he says, can adopt this kind of strategy.
Initially, there was a general sentiment in the neighborhood to have the estero cleared of shanties. Now that it is, again there is need for a collective effort to turn it into an environmentally sound waterway that will benefit especially the four schools and the City of Manila as a whole.