Lean-Joy:'I shouldn't lose hope because it won't be forever'

No-one would guess that *Lean-Joy* (17) - neatly dressed and ever-smiling - lives on the streets. But on the outer fringe of Metro Manila's choking urban sprawl, renting a house is prohibitively expensive. When we meet her, Lean-Joy is minding two of her younger siblings, one an infant.

Once we rented a house. But it burnt down: nothing was left. Then we went on to the streets and that’s where we’ve lived ever since. It’s almost six years now. Our whole family moved to the streets and we’ve stayed together. We’re six children – three sisters and three brothers. I’m the eldest. I look after my brothers and sisters.

My father began vending cigarettes and candies; my mother had a carinderia [eating shack or canteen]. Now my father is a barker [someone who shouts to get passengers into jeepneys in return for a small sum from the driver]. I work as a helper in the carinderia of my godfather. I was 10 when I started.

It’s not beautiful in our area. There are many snatchers [people who snatch bags and valuables and make a run for it] and people shooting guns. Outsiders view us with suspicion.

I’m studying even though I’m on the streets. I go to school at 12 noon and go home at seven in the evening. I work from 7pm to five in the morning. My father does his barking while I work in the canteen. I also vend to the passengers during the night. I shout ‘Balut, penoy, palamig!’ [ducks’ eggs, eggs, juices], the things that I sell. We work close by, my father and I. I am always with my dad. He watches over us because we sleep on the streets. A drunkard might harm my brothers and sisters. It happened once when a drunkard did something to us – a very bad thing. That’s why our father watches us. He sleeps in the daytime when he is not afraid any more because we are not on the streets then but at school.

Whenever we sell, we get chased by the MMDA [Metro Manila Development Authority]. They say it’s prohibited for vendors to be on the pavements. They destroy some of the items we sell; the others they keep for themselves to give to their families. Sometimes when we sleep on the pavements the DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] people try to catch us. We run so we won’t be caught. If they catch us, they interview us. They say they will give us a house or a place in a centre, but that never happens. My mother got caught. One of them told her that we’d be given a house, but up to now there is nothing.

The always-crowded jeepneys of Manila are a central feature in the lives of Lean-Joy and Jack.

Photo: Fran Harvey

I sleep around five hours a day. I don’t feel too sleepy in school because I’m used to it. I already had this kind of life when I was young. I joined my grandmother selling things then and she also worked during the night.

My teacher knows that I work and I’ve told her that I sometimes sleep in class. She says that even if I work I should still study well. She told me that if it’s OK with me she will get me [meaning the teacher said she is willing to take Lean-Joy over from her parents – an informal adoption].

We don’t have a house, but I don’t want to be adopted because there is no-one who will take care of my brothers and sisters. [Here she breaks down. Clearly the choice between a potentially more comfortable life and all her responsibilities with her street family is distressing.]

I cannot depend on my parents now because they are taking care of my siblings. I need to strengthen my heart; I need to be stronger while I’m still on the streets so that I c e our stuff and not destroy it.’ Or maybe he can make a place where the vendors can sell their things. He should not harm vendors and they shouldn’t give away the things we sell because it is like stealing them from us.

As for our President, I hope that she will give jobs for poor people. Also to look on those who do not have homes: I hope that she will give houses to them. She has promised it already but it was not implemented. That’s why graduates work in other countries – to earn more money. They leave their families here and are not able to take care of them. They cannot see their loved ones because they have to work for them to be able to live, because they cannot depend on their employment here in the Philippines, because she is not giving jobs to the Filipinos.

I’ve known Childhope [an NGO for street children, see box] five years now. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to learn how to protect myself from those people who abuse me and I wouldn’t be able to go to school. They give school supplies and if we don’t have rice, they give us rice. I won’t leave them even if I grow old. I’ll work for them so that I’ll be able to help other people.

If the time comes that I have my own family, I will have a house by then. I will do everything so that my children will not experience how it is not to have a home.

I’m a junior health worker already. I can bring children to hospitals who’ve had accidents, and I’ve had training in giving first aid. With the street educators we teach street children about their rights. After the teaching session we take the children to eat in Jollibee [local fast food chain].

We are five junior health workers. There are about 50 children in my area and all of them are our friends. They call me até [older sister]. But it can’t be avoided that they do something bad because they are street children. If they don’t have food to eat sometimes they steal food in the market. If they tell me I scold them because it’s bad. They then tell me that they won’t do it again – they’ll just ask, and they won’t steal any more. It feels good that so many people trust you.

This is what I want to say. For the children – in all the trials that come your way – do not lose hope because your life will improve. Study hard so that your dreams can come true. For the adults – I thank you. I am grateful that you don’t get tired helping your children with their problems and don’t neglect them. Let us pray that the Lord will guide us so that our lives will be happy.

Lean-Joy, Jack and Jessa spoke to Dinyar Godrej and Fran Harvey of the New Internationalist co-operative.