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Finding a safe home in the Philippines

Located in the seismic belt of the Pacific, the Philippines is frequently affected by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, typhoons and landslides. Between 2000 and 2008 the country suffered five natural disasters. And these disasters often have the largest impact on the poorest families, many of whom live in shanty homes which are no match for such forces of nature.

In response to the number of low-income families losing their homes, the Philippines Homeless People’s Federation (HPF) was set up. This organisation provides a national network of over 160 community associations and savings groups. Through the Federation, over 70,000 individuals in 18 cities have access to a savings facility and reconstruction advice. Poor people are helped to secure land tenure and improve damaged homes, working where possible in partnership with community-based welfare programmes.

As well as providing access to finance and legal advice, the HPF helps to organize those who have been affected by disasters in how to go about reconstructing their homes. After the Barangay Guinsaugon landslide, for example, the HPF worked alongside survivors to develop a savings scheme and organise trips to see other community-based housing developments. The HPF also arranged for the construction of 103 temporary housing units within four months of the emergency. After disasters, surveys are also conducted to assess high-risk areas and help local communities to acquire resettlement sites with less risk of mudslides. The HPF also helps families who face eviction from homes which have been constructed illegally.

Despite the great efforts of the HPF, there are still many poor families across the Philippines who lack a proper home in a safe environment. In the port district of Manila, the BBC’s reporter Kate McGeown, recently visited the Navotas City Cemetery. Here, over 600 families have set up homes perched precariously on the top of five rows of tombs. The Cemetery site has become a sea of rubbish and children play among piles of litter and even discarded human remains.

One woman who has lived at the cemetery since 1986, is Virginia dela Cruz. She has three children and most of them still live with her in the house on top of the tombs, some with their own children. Virginia says the youngsters are not concerned about ghosts, because they are used to living at the cemetery. But they worry about falling from the high position where the shanty houses are built. Ladders are used to climb up the tombs and reach the homes. Conditions at the site are appalling and funerals and wakes take place around the families on a regular basis. But Virginia says she has nowhere else to go and jokes that as well as living in the Cemetery, she will also die there.

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