Informal settlers relocated — only to live in squalor

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(CNN Philippines) — Children run around barefoot across a pile of garbage, while people take baths amid a stench they’ve become immune to — these are ordinary scenes at Happy Land.

The temporary relocation site for informal settlers is far from happy, though — especially where sanitation is concerned.

According to residents of Barangay 105 Happy Land in Tondo, Manila, the last time the government helped clean their community was in 2013, when a bulldozer was sent to pick up their garbage.

But when the assistance stopped, they took it upon themselves to clean their living space with whatever was available.

At Happy Land, waterways are filled with human feces and garbage accumulated over the years have taken the place of cemented streets.

Happy Land, along with other nearby communities, were designated as temporary relocation sites for more than three thousand families from the Smokey Mountain — which was closed down in 1995.

The National Housing Authority (NHA) said that those families were already relocated.

The problem, however, was that other families replaced them.

Many of the informal settler families staying in Happy Land have been living at the site for a decade.

"Hindi naman namin puwedeng sabihin na ilipat na kami dahil wala pa namang lilipatan," said resident Gloria Luces.

[We can't just tell them to transfer us because we don't have anywhere to go in the first place.]

Growing problem

Over the years, families in the area had multiplied.

And as the Happy Land community grew bigger, so did the garbage.

Some shanties were even built on top garbage — causing flooding problems.

Elsa Belaysa, a resident, explained how some people in their community had no idea how building houses on top of trash would affect them and their neighbors.

"Hindi nila alam, kumakatas na diyan sa pader yung kanilang mga tubig kasi nagtayo sila diyan. May basura basta tinayuan nila ng bahay, hindi nila tinanggal ang basura. Ngayon wala nang kanal roon, dito na lahat katas. Kawawa naman kaming naglilimas dito, araw araw nalang limas limas," she lamented.

[They don't even know that water is seeping into their walls. They just built their houses on top of that trash, they didn't even clear it first. Now that there's no proper sewage system, the water is finding its way here. And we have no choice but keep the flooding at bay by scooping the water out.]

Residents also complained about a lack of a waste disposal system — a problem which poses health risks, especially to children.

To survive, many of the people living in Happy Land have also become scavengers. They've learned to scour through the garbage of their neighbors and pick up food wastes of nearby fast food chains just to have something to eat.

According to the NHA, it is in the process of selling its property where the temporary shelters are. The agency said that residents will be given permanent homes as part of the deal.

While negotiations are underway, the NHA recognized that the families living in Happy Land are facing a big garbage problem.

"Basically it’s not our responsibility, although it's our property. Their living there is without the authority of the NHA. They invaded that space, but still, it is our concern because we don't want the people staying there to develop various diseases and be in harm's way," said Engr. Vic Balba, head of the NHA.

Balba also stressed that "it is the prime responsibility of the local government to take care of its constituents."

But Manila’s Urban Settlements Office pointed it's finger back at the NHA.

"I think NHA is more in a position to discuss the status of Happy Land because they own the property," said Victoria Clavel of Manila City Hall's Urban Settlements Office.

Manila tourism consultant Carlos Celdran, meanwhile, said that officials shouldn't be too focused on relocating the families because many informal settlers tend to come back even after they're relocated.

"The problem is not the housing, the problem is these people have no skills and no jobs," Celdran said. “We have to really stop and think about what we can do to help these people rise from where they are because it’s more than just moving them."