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Monday, 8 December 2014

17 Jackets Please #rubyph #hagupit #typhoon #philippines

So the typhoon that is no longer one has hit Manila in the last few hours. The numerous prayers for safety worked, to the extent that so far I would compare it to a normal rain shower. I can't hear the wind howling either which normally makes these things a lot more scary. However, it's easy to say and write this in our brick house containing many material things that people living on the streets can only dream about. This thought has been with me (more than usual)for the last 24 hours as I watched locals prepare for the storm.

It all started yesterday evening when I was heading back from a church fellowship and saw one of my sponsored children asleep in the street. Charlotte hadn't chosen the best location to fall asleep. In fact, she had probably inadvertently picked the most dangerous and visible spot in the whole area. She was literally lying in my path as I walked back to my house at about 7-8pm. She was in the centre of the walkway right outside a building which sells rooms and various unsavoury services by the hour. Probably the only reason she hadn't already been hired or lured away is because she dresses and acts like a teenage boy. She has just turned 14.

The approaching typhoon and potential consequences of leaving her there were unthinkable so several of us spent several minutes waking her up (no easy task) and dragging her to her feet before I told her she could stay at my house for the night, but only for the night.

Today, I gave her a clean change of clothes knowing I would never see them again. I normally give clothes that I have outgrown which happens to at least a few items every week, not because I am growing at the speed of a teenager but because our local laundry shop shrinks them. Then we set out into the very dirty street to get her some flip flops as she had no footwear (again.)

After sorting this out and then searching in every shop in the area for something that I could wear to a wedding at the weekend I gave up when a shop assistant pointed out that I was now wearing my T-shirt inside out.

Walking back to my house with Charlotte in tow I noticed a large gathering of familiar faces at the bus stop at the end of the road that leads to the church. Many of the homeless people were carrying Bibles and were obviously wanting to attend our regular Monday evening Bible study which attracts around 35-40 homeless people. It starts at 6pm and it was only 230pm but the people tend to turn up very early for everything and fall asleep outside until they are allowed in.

They greeted me as I walked past and asked me if the study would be going ahead due to the typhoon. I assumed it would but told them I would check. I hoped it would as they huddled in several groups; wet, cold and shivering, some having travelled from other areas and most clad only in T-shirts or thin layers. I contacted a few people only to find that the Bible study would not be going ahead. Of course they were disappointed and I didn't know what I could do really so was about to leave, but then I saw an older lady shivering in just a T-shirt and hugging herself in an effort to keep warm.

I approached the lady and asked the obvious. She said she was cold and didn't have another layer so I told her to come with me and I would buy her a jacket or jumper. Of course I was then surrounded by several adult men who also began shivering, hugging themselves and saying they were cold too. After a half-hearted attempt to avoid the inevitable by telling them they were younger and this woman was old, I mentally calculated the cost and then succumbed knowing i would have to buy for them all. They had surrounded me and started chanting "we want jackets" or the Filipino equivalent which turned into loud cheers as I announced that we would be heading to Ukay Ukay (the nearest second hand clothes shop.)

I was a bit embarrassed as we headed along the street especially when I ran into two of my housemates. By the time we arrived at the store there were 17 people in the gang. I informed the store manager (who I already know) that each person was allowed to choose one jacket or jumper and that she could count them out as they left and I would pay for it at the end. She smiled and sat at the door to make sure that that was what actually happened, I don't blame her!

Then I addressed the motley crew patiently waiting at the entrance and in a loud voice made them promise me that they wouldn't sell the items afterwards knowing full well that some of them would anyway. (This always has to be factored into a decision to help practically but most of the time its worth helping anyway for the sake of the genuine.) After making this promise, the crowd of mostly men swarmed into the shop and spent a while browsing before mostly choosing very large coats that were too big for them but would hopefully keep them warm.

As they left and each said thankyou I encouraged them to see the gifts as a blessing from God. There was one man left who couldn't find anything to his liking probably because the quicker guys had cleared an entire rack of coats. So I went through the other racks with him only to hear him say "parang babae" (it looks like a girls) around 50 times. I told him "parang lalaki" (I think you can guess that one) but he didn't believe me and turned his nose up at everything. I was tempted to leave him in his thin T-shirt but as he was an older man I took him to a nearby new clothes shop and managed to get him a long sleeved T-shirt for just slightly more than the rest half expecting a selection of the others to come rushing in after us to swap, complain or demand the extra money. But nobody did which was nice. They were all very grateful and made me pose for a photo with them wearing their "new jackets." (Total cost = a little over £20, bargain!)

Then I spoke to the old lady that had begun this craziness and she, obviously realising that I was a soft touch, asked if I could buy her a coffee. I asked her how much and again I quickly did the mental calculation knowing it would be not one but 17 coffees...nodding my assent as I could feel that despite the jumper her hands were still freezing cold I again led the throng to a coffee machine which was out of water. We headed to a different location and waited whilst the cups were refilled. The vending machine was a slow process as I stood by the machine inserting the coins as the people chose their coffee or chocolate. Afterwards I took my chocolate and made good my escape. (Total cost = £1, yes, that's right! :)

On the way back to my house I saw a family that I met just yesterday. The girl Mary* is 21 and she has a 1 year old baby. Mary's 18 year old brother is with them. She says that their house burnt down recently forcing them onto the street. I don't know if this is true.

I noticed them because the baby was very dirty and had the start of a severe scalp infection. I bought them food and medicine. I told them about the church which was about 100 metres from where they were sitting and invited them to join us for lunch at the church but they arrived too late (which is the reason I bought them food.) I only knew they had attended the church because when I came out after the service I was surrounded by a crowd of street children desperately trying to tell me something and was still trying to piece together their bits of English with my still small understanding of Tagalog until the mystery was solved when they led me to the family who had returned to the end of the street.

I asked Mary* how she was doing feeling totally inadequate as its kindof like asking someone how they are when someone close to them has just died. Fortunately Filipino's don't say things like "Well how do you think I'm doing?? My house burnt down, I have no food, no money, and no work, my husband left me, my baby is sick, I'm living on a dirty street corner reduced to begging and a typhoon is coming."

The temptation to offer them lodgings for a while is very great but there are similar situations everywhere and I have to try and use my head not just my heart. I also have to think about my housemates who already graciously tolerate the constant arrival of various street children that show up invited and uninvited. I will take the family in temporarily if the storm gets worse but at the moment it is relatively calm. I hope they will use the connection to come back to the church as that is where the real help is.

Maybe you are wondering what happened to Charlotte* who kindof got lost in the mad rush of homeless people to the used clothes store. She turned up at my house at around 5pm with Jack* who smelt really bad. After noting that they both still had the flip flops I had bought them (and made them promise not to sell) making them both have a shower and giving Jack clean clothes, we sat down for a serious talk. I spoke to one then the other and convinced them (after tears) that they must return home to their own families knowing that what awaited them might not be pleasant but seeing no real alternative other than leaving them on the street to brave the bad weather. Interestingly Jack's main concern was whether he could still attend the church on sunday which warmed my heart as I promised to pay his fare if he were to do so.

I then sent them to buy food at a local street stand which I wouldn't have done a few months back as they might have disappeared with the money but Charlotte has proved trustworthy and once again reliably brought me some change. I then escorted them to a Jeep and paid the driver directly to take them home (one hour away.) As I did this I knew that they might just get off a few hundred metres down the road and head back to the street but that's when it's time to let go as I can only do so much. I prayed that they would go home as Charlotte has been away for a week now and Jack at least a month.

Sometimes I wonder how much detail to include here as it might read as a Florence Nightingale type story. I hope you can see beyond this and know that I include these details because I am so grateful to you the supporters of Olongapo Christian Help and Hope (www.olongapochristianhelpandhope.btck...) for your faithful giving. How frustrating and discouraging would it be if everytime I was moved to compassion by some poor needy soul here I had to walk on by because the funds weren't available to help them. Thankfully this has rarely been the case and when I do walk on by it is because it is not the right time or there is a need to get to know someone first rather than due to a lack of funds. I also hope these stories will encourage you to pray for those less fortunate here in the Philippines and that the stories assure you that your money is being used in many ways to make a small difference to a few individuals each of which is known and loved by God.