Aidan Bernales

Published: April 12, 2024

CEBU CITY, Philippines — On a stormy day, you will find a family of five huddled underneath the veranda of a McDonalds on a highway in Cebu City. It is a temporary relocation from the mobile cart they live in—an improvised living space with tarpaulins as a roof and carton boxes laid on the side of the street as mattresses. This is their home. 

It is this very rain that destroyed the small shelter couple Emily and Kevin built for their family in Barangay Tabok, Mandaue City back in December 2021. We have withheld their surname at their request. 

The river near their barangay rose to dangerous levels during Super Typhoon Odette (Rai), forcing them to evacuate for a month to a nearby elementary school. When they returned, they found not only their homes but their entire barangay devastated. 

This storm, one whose effects ended three years ago for many Cebuanos, continues to be the source of this family’s homelessness to this day. 

Extreme climate events, in the form of rain and heat, continue to push poor Cebuano families further into states of homelessness and hopelessness. Scarce are the policies in Cebu to temper the effects of the changing climate and the situation of the homeless. 

Last April 2023, after Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama proposed to make a “Singapore-like Cebu” in his term, he claimed he would rid the streets of homeless families by Independence Day, without mentioning where these dwellers will be relocated.

Kevin and Emily’s family remained in their makeshift shelter come June 12. Since then, Rama has announced that he has allotted a PHP 3.1 billion budget for 80 barangays in Cebu to become “city-like” in order to achieve his vision. 

He failed to elaborate how this will happen, but one can assume that homeless families like Kevin and Emily’s will be seen as an eyesore on the streets of a barangay-turned-city.

Playing with fire and water

Scenes of the destruction in Cebu City on December 17, the day after typhoon Odette made landfall. (Aidan Bernales)

Kevin and Emily’s home in Tabok was only one of the 1.5 million houses in the Philippines that were devastated by Typhoon Odette, a number that the International Federation of Red Cross said was “more than any other typhoon in recent decades.”

While not every extreme weather event is a result of climate change, extremely short but intense cyclones have become more frequent, University of the Philippines Cebu professor and environmental consultant Aiza Cortes said.

When barangay rovers roam the streets to announce an incoming typhoon, the family of Kevin and Emily finds shelter in fast food restaurants, gasoline stations, and nearby stores, where they also frequently beg for food and water. Their earnings from collecting and selling trash are insufficient to feed their family of five, forcing them to rely on the kindness of strangers. 

Cortes added that climate change compounds the effects of urban heat islands, or when a city like Cebu experiences much warmer temperatures. She noted the only efforts to increase green spaces in urban areas on the island involve planting trees among already built infrastructure. 

“While the trees offer cooling, these are insufficient considering the intensive warming of the city,” she said.  

Cortes stressed that homeless families are most endangered by the intense heat as they do not have the shading mechanisms to protect them from it. Even the galvanized iron roof or sin in Bisaya that many makeshift houses use requires material supplants to be considered heat-resilient.

Last November, the family’s youngest child, Cem, only two years old, was admitted to the hospital because of dehydration. This was the third time he had been hospitalized.

“When the weather is hot, [Cem] always gets sick. He gets coughs, colds, and diarrhea,” Emily said in Cebuano.

Another problem in Cebu is saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers and water wells.

“We have started to notice the salt water has started to replace our groundwater [which we extract water from]. That is a very serious problem,” Cortes said. 

When salt water from Manila Bay intruded upon coastal villages in Pampanga, Bulacan, and Bataan 7,000 hectares of rice land were considered damaged. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Central Luzon attributed this phenomenon to rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Aside from agricultural loss, saltwater intrusion contaminates the local water supply, rendering it toxic. 

While subdivisions and condominiums store water for future use in case of an emergency, homeless families live only off of day-to-day supplies. The very ones who have no hand in wasting the water resources of the city will be the first deprived of it.

“If they don’t give us water, we don’t drink that day,” Emily said in Cebuano.

Going the extra mile

The makeshift mobile home where Emily and Kevin’s family stay on the side of the road, with a stray dog they adopted photographed. (Aidan Bernales)

Kevin and Emily simply do not have the time to figure out how to solve the housing crisis or the climate one.

This is the mission of Build Change, an organization dedicated to retrofitting houses and schools to become disaster-resilient. They have disaster-proofed more than 229,000 homes worldwide. 

“We realized quickly that poor families are the first to become homeless when disaster strikes. So, we designed a program where everyone can employ the tech[nology] to make resilient houses regardless of their economic status,” said Girlie Lopez, the Programs Manager of Build Change in the Philippines.

They do this by providing homeowners with access to financing. 

Lopez explained that housing loans are highly collateralized in the Philippines. Homeowners without land titles are usually rejected from borrowing a loan. Moreover, financial institutions in the country are often reluctant to provide housing loans to low- and middle-income homeowners fearing they will not be able to pay back.

“We partnered with microfinance institutions that prioritize low-income homeowners. They assess the homeowners’ capacity to pay along with their history of repayment and loans,” Lopez said.  “For what it’s worth, they always can pay back the loan.”

Retrofitting a home would usually require a total disassembly of the structure, but Build Change invented an app specifically for the Philippines to allay this concern. 

The app called BCTap employs the incremental build model to customize disaster-proofing measures through an interactive 3D interface, visualizing the impact of modifications with step-by-step guidance and real-time updates. They offer this application for free to homeowners and partner institutions. 

“We know the typhoon is coming. We know the earthquakes aren’t going below magnitude 5. We should do something to help those who need it the most,” Lopez said.

Build Change currently focuses its operations in Luzon, but aims to expand to Visayas and Mindanao this year.

Survival of the fittest

When asked about their programs, the Department of Social Welfare and Development Field Office 7 said the office is currently pilot testing a program for indigenous people living unhoused in the city. Aside from that, Kevin’s family has no program to qualify for.

Emily said they tried living in other nearby places—parks, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings—but there was always something that prevented them from staying there. May it be the lack of shade for when it is hot or rains, the distance from the closest store to beg water and food from, or authorities would simply shoo them off the area.

For environmental consultant Cortes, achieving lasting change for Cebu’s homeless population requires government intervention.

“Even housing cannot solve the housing crisis. The homeless should be enabled to survive,” she said.

In order for that to happen, Cortes called for a holistic government approach, where the homeless population is included in the dialogue to fix their situation, an aspect sorely lacking in the decision-making process for these vulnerable groups. 

In a March 19 airing of his television radio program, Rama said he now wishes for Cebu to be a Singapore-like smart city with Melbourne features and Taiwan training. 

There was not much discussion on how to achieve this, aside from a proposal to remove the remaining skywalks in Cebu City. Rama said they are no longer effective, serving only as sleeping quarters for homeless beggars—like Kevin and his family.

Kevin has not approached the mayor for help yet. He knows he will receive only rice and slippers, the same items they were given after their home was destroyed.

“Our only wish is that our children can go to school and succeed. That they get what they want in life,” Kevin says.

Without even a roof above their head, Kevin and Emily do not know if they can achieve this. Still, the family says they consider themselves blessed every day they remain alive. 


This story was supported by the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines