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Hopeful approaches to homelessness

“So there are also squatters in Korea?” an urban poor mother and leader sitting beside me quipped in Filipino while looking at photos of so-called “vinyl houses” being flashed on the screen. (Some 4,900 families evicted from various places in Seoul occupy vacant spaces without permission and build shelters made of vinyl, thus the name.) But instead of correcting her for using a politically incorrect term for people without security of tenure (the more acceptable term nowadays is “informal settlers”), I replied: “That’s because we don’t see them in Korean telenovelas.”

I wished that the 500 or so urban poor leaders inside the convention hall shared her candid realization upon seeing the pictures that spoke volumes of the global nature of the problem of land and tenure insecurity in cities. It had probably dawned on her that the 3 million Filipino families living in slums and without legal land or housing tenure, were not alone in waking up daily to the possibility of getting displaced and having their houses and lives destroyed. Had they known that close to 4.5 million people in the world were affected by evictions between 2007 and 2008 and that 55 percent of these happened in Asia, according to the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, they would have left the venue feeling more depressed and helpless than ever.

Or probably not.

Optimism was palpable inside the hall where community leaders from 12 countries in Asia—from Korea to Pakistan to Burma (Myanmar) to the Philippines—gathered for the launching of a regional assembly of people’s organizations called the Urban Poor Coalition Asia or UPCA. What was remarkable about the assembly was that despite the differences in mother tongues, the language of hope to address a shared issue—the threat of forced eviction—echoed loud and clear among “Asian friends.”

Listening to the reports (or reading the English phrases and sentences in their PowerPoint presentations), one could see the richness of experience of the urban poor, in devising and adopting different strategies and approaches in empowering themselves to resist forced evictions. In all the countries participating in the UPCA, community-level savings mobilization proved practical. In Thailand, for example, communities have compulsory savings of 200 baht per month per household (or only P10 per day). One citywide network was able to buy a parcel of land for soon-to-be evicted families “with our own fund” and a loan from the government and development organizations like the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. The property is located very near the original community, ensuring proximity to factories and other employment opportunities in the city.

Advocating housing rights through coalition-building and networking is also an essential strategy for influencing policies and challenging practices by government. In Nepal, the city network that includes women and youth held dialogues with political parties and explained its agenda to the public through various media. As a result, local governments in the cities of Bharatpur and Biratnagar have given free land for housing and have allocated a budget for citywide upgrading projects. In the Philippines, networks such as the Urban Poor Alliance stepped up the anti-eviction advocacy by entering into a covenant with President Aquino in 2010. So far, the allocation of P10 billion per year for in-city medium-rise housing projects for informal settlers along waterways has been the most significant (but yet to be realized) milestone of this engagement with the national government.

In-depth, detailed and, at best, participatory research has also gained increased importance in designing the strategies employed by many organized urban poor to prevent forced evictions. Indonesian delegates reported the significant contribution of technical assistance provided by architects and engineers in determining the magnitude of informal housing along Ciliwung River in east Jakarta and in capacitating the affected families in studying flood mitigation measures. It also proved helpful in proposing low-cost housing designs in accordance with the aspirations of the communities. In Korea, the NGO Asia Bridge conducted surveys to help assess the general condition of vinyl-house settlements in Seoul and generated maps to locate potential areas for upgrading and propoor development.

Nothing in the reports claimed that a single strategy can address the problem of homelessness. It has been a combination of approaches complementing each other. A community organization cannot rely solely on savings generation without trying to compel government to open opportunities for grassroots participation in the land market and land use. Neither can anti-eviction mobilization activities provide a long-term solution to tenure insecurity without sufficient and community-managed resources for the social preparation of would-be affected families. Research is needed to find out specific principles that will guide advocacy regarding what constitutes an adequate and legally acceptable housing intervention. There can be more strategies depending on the context and shared values of people, and in the end, the different strategies aim to achieve the same goal: tenure security and housing for the poor. Hope springs from allowing people’s organizations to explore innovative ways for solving their issues, different opportunities for building partnerships, and alternative venues for working with other stakeholders, especially government.

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