Community-led COVID-19 response: the work of the Philippines Homeless People’s Federation

Based on member interviews and accounts, the Philippines Homeless People’s Federation describes how community organisations have rallied to support vulnerable groups, hit hardest by the pandemic.

Theresa Carampatana's pictureRolando A Tuazon's picture
Guest blog by
9 June 2020

Theresa Carampatana is president of the Homeless People's Federation of the Philippines; Rolando A. Tuazon is executive director of PACSII

A group of people at a handwashing facility

A community handwashing station in Iloilo (Photo: copyright Asian Coalition for Housing Rights)

This blog describes how the Philippines Homeless People’s Federation (HPFPI) has responded to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. The federation has more than 9,000 members in 106 communities in 14 cities and towns throughout the Philippines. It brings together low-income community organisations to find solutions to problems relating to land, housing, income, infrastructure, health and welfare. Its work is supported by the Philippine Action for Community-led Shelter Initiatives, Inc (PACSII).

The blog draws on responses to a questionnaire conducted by federation community leaders, and a teleconference where experiences from the ground – Batasan, Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, Muntinlupa, NCR,  Rodriguez-Rizal and Valenzuela – were shared.

Planning the response

Initial plans from HPFPI leaders (local, regional and national) included:

  • Identifying the communities’ most vulnerable people and updating community databases with member information. With this data, leaders could prioritise getting help for the homeless and others in greatest need including the elderly, children and people with disabilities
  • Deploying immediate interventions to help prevent the spread of the virus and minimise impacts of the lockdown
  • Coordinating and partnering with government and non-government institutions
  • Setting up a communications network to support member coordination across regions and cities 
  • Since many banks were closed, supporting the transfer of funds to regions. At the start of the lockdown, each region used their savings to finance their community operations but these soon ran low. 

Preventing the virus spread 

Information on TV and radio made people aware of how to contain the virus. Federation leaders worked to get this information out to everyone, while also trying to prevent ‘fake news’ circulating. Information sharing must observe social distancing rules; meetings are not allowed. 

People complied with the information as follows: 

  • Blocking off whole areas to prevent movement 
  • Applying social distancing and wearing face masks 
  • Observing national curfew (8pm-5am)
  • Using quarantine passes to buy food – one per family member and for those working on the frontline
  • All observing home-stay, senior citizens most strictly
  • Promoting good hygiene such as hand washing 
  • Medical check-ups when virus symptoms develop

Community leaders have helped keep community members disinfected, distributing soap and alcohol cleanser. Some have built communal washing facilities or purchased thermal scanners that can detect the virus. Some are making washable masks because it is now more difficult to get these from the stores. Local government has also been disinfecting public markets and other commonly used areas. 

Practical help

External aid agencies were slow to respond and, initially, funding to support the homeless came mainly from community savings and the HPFPI’s disaster fund. 

A group of people gathered around cartons of food

Making food packs in Manila (Photo: copyright Asian Coalition for Housing Rights)

Federation leaders bought food in bulk and packaged it up for distribution to each family. The packs include 3-5kg of rice, canned sardines, instant noodles, biscuits and coffee. In some cases, packages included baby milk, medicines and vitamins.

Families often share their food with neighbours, especially those in greater need. Some have set up community kitchens and communal gardens with backyard and vertical gardening.

Community leaders have been coordinating with local government to get those infected to hospital or community health centres. Preventive measures implemented in the communities have paid off: there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in most areas with community associations.

Working with government

The government’s strict quarantine policy makes it hard for HPFPI to mobilise the community response. So, the federation has been working with government agencies to identify the most vulnerable members, distribute relief goods and cash, repackage goods for the poorest, and carry out health monitoring.

Local government units often find it easier to implement their programs when working with organisations such as HPFPI.

Mobilising funds and resources

As the lockdown was enforced, people lost their income almost overnight. They needed money to buy food but the government response was slow and when help did arrive, provisions were inadequate.

One kilo of rice, one can of sardines and one pack of instant noodles was meant to provide for a family for a week. Some families would receive a second package, often with more items.  

A woman hands another woman a bag of rice

Distributing rice in Bicol (Photo: copyright Asian Coalition for Housing Rights)

National government announced payments of 5,000 – 8,000 pesos for each family, but more than half did not receive it.

Funding from Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) has been supporting HPFPI’s work in each region but it has proved difficult to get the bank to actually transfer the funds. Some members benefited from support from development organisation Caritas. 

Because of the enormity of the needs of our sizeable membership, PACSII is seeking funds from local sources. 1.5 million pesos (US $30,000) have been donated by individuals and local companies. 

Challenges brought by COVID-19…

The lockdown prevents people moving, working, planning, organising and travelling to access resources. But community leaders found ways round this and managed to coordinate with government, often through the internet and digital meetings. 

The government’s home-stay policy is particularly challenging with the harsh living conditions many face. Young people find the confinement tough, and some have violated quarantine rules.

Overall, the government was ill-prepared: resources and the mechanisms to distribute them were insufficient. Inadequate health systems has led to a health crisis that will, almost certainly, give way to an economic crisis. 

…but some good things too

The massive drop in transport emissions has reduced air pollution significantly. The lockdown has offered more opportunities for family bonding, community solidarity and nurtured a general feeling of unity.

People have also found their faith is stronger, with a deeper appreciation of God and His providence. Some communities have organised common time for prayers. 

Lessons

An effective crisis response draws on the efforts of many. The government quickly found it could not prevent the spread of the virus, or adequately address its impacts, without cooperation from everyone. 

Similarly, community organisations found they could work at scale and with greater impact when their work was supported by government. Updated baseline community data for community mapping was fundamental for getting help to the most vulnerable areas. 

Finally, the challenge of accessing funds, particularly in the early stages of lockdown, made clear the need for an emergency fast-response fund to help manage future disasters and crises. 

About the author

Theresa Carampatana is president of the Homeless People's Federation of the Philippines

Rolando A. Tuazon is executive director of PACSII

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