Underneath the rush-hour traffic, Lydia* relaxes in her home, a 4-square-meter patch of concrete. Perching on a flattened cardboard box to protect her from the heat of the ground, a wooden construction sits above her head where her personal possessions are stored and her son is sleeping.

A steady flow of traffic on the small bridge disguises the community that thrives underneath.

Lydia has lived beneath a bridge for almost half of her life; now in her late 40s, she first moved here in her early 20s. Her six children were born and raised here, and it’s from here she runs her small but successful business as a food vendor. Her family is among 30 others who call this place home. Until last year the figure was closer to 100, creating a sprawling network of makeshift residences jutting out of the bridge’s framework.

Homes are accessible by a steep set of stairs next to the roadside.

Bridge dwelling emerged as a phenomenon in Metro Manila in the 1970s. With space on ground level sparse, the undersides of bridges provided shelter from high temperatures and heavy rainfall, offering a calmer alternative to the sidewalks of the city. Living here comes with its own set of risks, including respiratory problems and poor sanitation. But the risks are considered worth it considering the advantages: free (or at least cheap) rent, a central location and, crucially, steady work.

Darkness envelops homes deep underneath the bridge.

The recent decrease in the bridge population is because of a government-led relocation program. The program allows families to choose from three sites in neighboring provinces and provides a cash incentive. However, the reality of living in the countryside can be a hard adjustment. The pace of life is slower, finding work is harder and competition is higher. This often means families like Lydia’s have to splinter upon relocation, with some staying in Manila and some moving to the province, just to maintain a stable income.

Lydia (right) and her neighbor undertake daily chores.

With less work, fewer educational opportunities and homesickness, those relocated frequently return to the bridge for weeks or months at a time. Having gone through a round of relocation herself, Lydia ended up back at the bridge in 2006 and has stayed here ever since. “We couldn’t adjust to the situation as easily as we hoped. I’m from Manila; I was born here. We couldn’t really adapt to how different it was to live in the province,” Lydia said.

The future for Lydia and the other families who live here is unclear. Relocation programs continue to be spearheaded by the local government, and bridge residents find themselves caught between realizing a lifelong dream of having four walls and the hardships of living away from the bridge. For now, Lydia is content as long as her family remains together. “To me, a home is a place you come back to, a place where you are together. Even if it means to live in a shanty, if we’re together, and we’re there for each other, that’s home.”

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Stephanie Beeston
Stephanie Beeston is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in London.