Surviving 16 years of life on the streets

JUST like Princess Aurora in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, Lorelei Castro was nearing her 16th birthday when she met the man who would become the father of her future children.

Although they had the same tenderness the fictional characters shared during their first meeting, they lacked the symphony of the forest animals that sang a chorus of love and whatnot.

Instead, the boisterous laughter of drunk men, the loud cries of an infant, a screeching mother throwing out pots, and the patter of stray cats on rusty tin roofs played in the background when Lorelei and Anthony Baar’s eyes met.

The two had been childhood friends in the slums of Barangay Ermita, Cebu City. But the snot, unruly hair and grime-filled clothes did not spark anything romantic for two young kids then.

It was only during their pre-adolescent years when the two felt a deeper connection.

Anthony, who was then 14, took with him his “princess” to ride off to the sunset, but instead of the proverbial white stallion, Lorelei rode a rickety, wooden wagon.

Years later, the couple are now parents to three girls and four boys.

Their first apartment

Like royal children in fairy tales, the kids had a wide lawn to run and play in, and they slept in the shadow of tall pillars and an intricate ceiling of a “castle.”

But there are no beds to spare them from backaches, no soft linen to cover their bodies. What they have are boards torn from cartons, their parents’ numbing arms for makeshift pillows.

This was the family’s daily routine for the past 16 years, and it was only two months ago when Anthony and Lorelei decided to take a single-room apartment in Barangay Mambaling.

“Sa una nagpuyo mi og palasyo oy. Two-storey pa man gani, pero di lang kami ang tag-iya (We used to live in a two-storey castle. It just didn’t belong to us,” Anthony said, mirth clear in his eyes.

The castle Anthony referred to was the building of a bank beside the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño. But with the children growing and a five-month-old baby, the couple saw the need for a more secure abode.

The 31-year-old ambulant vendor, though, has nothing but lessons and no regrets from their situation.

He said that poverty only fueled his love for his common-law wife and made them more humble and grateful for each other. Although the P200 he earns daily from selling souvenirs near the Basilica is not enough to support his growing family’s needs, he is happy to have helpful children. The apartment’s monthly rental alone costs P1,500.

Loreen, 11, works as her father’s substitute vendor on weekends. Her parents, though, are just around the area to keep her safe.

“Amo na sila tudluan ba na samtang bata pa, dili magpabadlong. Dapat mutabang sa mga ginikanan. Swerte pud mi kay wa mi mga badlungon na anak. Di man pud mi mamunal kay di na maayo (We taught them to be obedient and to help us. We’re lucky to have such good children. We don’t spank them because we don’t think that’s good,” Lorelei said.

Despite barely making ends meet, Lorelei is proud to say that except for the toddlers, all their children are attending school. The eldest, a 16-year-old boy, is a student in the Don Carlos Gothong Memorial National High School, while the others are attending Tejero Elementary School.

“Ang amo lang unta kay tabangan mi sa gobyerno nga makabalay kay aron naa mi kabinlan sa mga bata og mutaliwan na mi (We hope the government will help us acquire a home, so we can have something to leave our children when we die),” Anthony said.

Approximately 210 meters from the Basilica, a 75-year-old man shares the same wish Anthony has.

Margarito “Toring” Mariveles comes from the southern town of Argao, but has been dwelling on Cebu City’s streets since he was nine. Toring said that his parents, both farmers, sought greener pastures in the city and took him and his five older siblings with them.

Several decades later, Toring now sits alone on a carton mat that barely fit his already frail, skinny frame on D. Jakosalem St. His bad posture and hours of crouching from scribbling on his notebook do not help his sore joints.

“Magsige ra man ko og suwat og sugilanon. Mahitungod ni sa napakyas na gugma na sama sa ako pung nahiaguman sa una. Ako ni ipadala sa newspaper arun mapatik (I keep writing stories about failed love, which I experienced a long time ago. I want to send these to a newspaper so these can be published),” he half-shouted. He is partially deaf.

Toring used to work as a construction worker during his younger days. His later years were spent running errands for nearby vendors until he was too old to do so. His older brother, Berio, kept him company before the man died in his sleep almost a decade ago, atop the wooden wagon he used to transport goods to Carbon Market.

The Baars and Toring are just among the hundreds of street dwellers that loiter on the city’s streets. Last year, the Department of Social Welfare and Services profiled 197 families or around 600 street dwellers.

The National Government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) 7 previously gave the City Government an initial fund of P2.8 million for a comprehensive program for street dwellers.

Last Sept., 20 homeless street families were chosen by the Modified Conditional Cash Transfer (MCCT) program to be its partner-beneficiaries. They now own homes in Barangay Kalunasan.

Through the MCCT, the DSWD has provided rent subsidy for a maximum of P4,000 per month up to 12 months.

Meanwhile, the City Government’s Division for the Welfare of the Urban Poor (DWUP) has recorded around 600 walk-in individuals who wished to avail themselves of the City’s subsidized housing program for this year. Lawyer Meriam Consuelo Fernandez, DWUP head, said the housing backlog can be addressed, but congestion in the city keeps their numbers rising. The City also prioritizes, for help, those who were displaced by calamities.

She added that there are also beneficiaries who are still wary about proposals for medium-rise settlements, since they want to have land. “They want security of tenure, but we remain hopeful that they will eventually see through their reservations. We’re going to have two families pilot-test our proposal next year. It will be at the Doña Pepang Cemetery and Barangay Lorega San Miguel,” Fernandez said.
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