MANILA - Thousands of homeless Filipinos are ready to illegally occupy empty government housing if a plan to hand over these buildings is delayed, campaigners said, underlining a growing crisis in one of South-east Asia's poorest countries.
There are about 4.5 million homeless people in the Philippines of a population of about 106 million, according to the statistics office. About 3 million homeless are in Manila, possibly the most in any city in the world, charities estimate.
At the same time, nearly 115,000 units of public housing are empty across the country, according to rights group Kadamay.
"More people are moving to the cities as they lose their homes and lands to highways and industries," said John Paul Lapid at the non-profit Urban Poor Resource Center of the Philippines, set up in 2010 to address rising poverty in cities.
"They are forced to live in shanties and under bridges, risking their health and safety, and constantly facing eviction. The only solution is to match empty government homes with the homeless," he said.
Last March, Kadamay led about 12,000 homeless people from Manila in an overnight march to occupy 6,000 apartments in an empty government site in Bulacan, about 40 km (25 miles) away.
A year on, the occupiers number 20,000 and a resolution to give empty homes meant for the police and armed forces to the homeless is awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte's approval.
The president's spokesman did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment on the resolution.
More such occupations are planned if there are delays, said Michael Beltran at Kadamay, which estimates nearly 90 percent of homes meant for the police and armed forces are vacant, mainly because they are too far from city centres.
"It's ironic that when there are millions of homeless people, there are thousands of housing units built with public money lying idle," Beltran told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Most of the units that were occupied in Bulacan don't have running water or electricity; some don't even have doors or roofs. But it's still better than being on the street."
A spokeswoman for the National Housing Authority, a government entity that provides affordable housing for low-income families, said they are still validating the occupiers to determine those qualified to get "the idle units".
The NHA will re-award the units to those who qualify after the president signs the resolution, Elsie Trinidad said, without specifying a timeline.
The NHA last year committed to building 800,000 homes over five years. The backlog for government housing is about 5.5 million, campaigners estimate.
"The homelessness situation is an emergency," Beltran said.
"Homeless numbers will continue to rise. Occupations will also rise as long as there are empty homes and no legal way for them to get homes." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith