MANILA, Philippines—On a humid summer day, street educator Butch Nerja pounds the garbage-littered streets of Divisoria, Manila’s chaotic merchant market district, to check on his wards.
He has just received disconcerting news that some of the children he has tried to help have again gone back to living in Divisoria’s maze of dark and pungent alleyways where they are prone to drug addiction and abuse.
A self-styled "scholar of the university of hard knocks," the witty and cheerful Nerja, 45, was a street child and gang leader himself with a profound experience of the city’s seedy underside.
"We have to check on the whole hacienda," Nerja tells Agence France Presse, as he heads onto a side street beside a stagnant canal choked with garbage which doubles as a bathing pool for children abandoned or living with their families on the streets.
The light joke belies the emotional burden his unique job carries — many of his hundreds of wards are too young to care for themselves, and without any money are forced to beg or steal just to survive.
Others simply vanish after a while, their fate unknown and their names and faces only remembered in Nerja’s personal logbook.
A teenage boy naked from the waist up and apparently still high from sniffing glue looks up suspiciously, but his eyes light up after recognizing Nerja with his trademark curly unkempt hair, and wearing his usual dark shirt and bright orange trousers.
"Tatay (Father) Butch is here," the boy shouts, and within minutes a horde of soot-covered smelly teens emerge from under the bridge, where they sleep on ledges just inches above the muck.
The boy gives his name only as Francis, and Nerja calls him the "guardian of the bridge" who leads the gang in collecting recyclable waste for money.
Nerja takes Francis by the elbow and leads him into a corner, where he gently admonishes him to stay off drugs and try to return to a shelter for homeless children.
"I will come back for you later to bring food," Nerja says, and proceeds to check on another group of teens sleeping on the footpath beside a rundown building.
Nomads in the city
Nerja’s wards are among the more than 222,000 children estimated by the social welfare department to be living on the streets in some 65 cities and towns across the Philippines.
Of that total, some 70,000 are believed to be in Manila, either alone or living with their families as nomads in pushcarts, according to the social welfare department.
Nerja says the number may be even higher, with more and more rural families streaming into Manila hoping for a better life but only to end up homeless. In many cases, the parents drift apart and the children are left on their own.
"These children are very vulnerable to the environment they live in," Nerja says. "Some are on drugs, and I try to establish connections with them on a personal level and convince them to get off the streets and into half-way homes."
Leader of a gang
Nerja never knew his parents and was in the care of relatives when he ran away as a child in the 1970s.
Eventually he found himself as leader of a small gang of boys who sold sex to tourists. They all eventually became addicted to drugs, and became fixtures in hotels around Manila’s red light district.
"I did not like to be pampered by my relatives. They always wanted things structured, with rules. I wanted freedom, so when I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, I ran away," Nerja says.
"I enjoyed the streets, travelled a lot. But I also met pedophiles and I later became a pimp. Those who were new to the streets went under my protection," he says.
When money dried up, Nerja took his gang to the parks, where they hustled for scraps.
Later, he met social workers who convinced him to join a shelter for boys, and a Catholic priest later took him in as a personal assistant and friend.
‘I was hard-core’
"It was a tough and difficult life. I came to a point where I was searching for something from the world, a meaning," Nerja says. "At first I did not want to go to a shelter, I was hard-core, but I later liked the direction I took."
He took special classes that enabled him to enroll in college, where he majored in psychology. He dropped out, however, and married while still young, before returning to the streets as a "street educator" for Child Hope Asia.
"I try to guide these children. There are many heart-breaking stories, but there are also success stories," he says, adding that one of the children he has helped is about to graduate from an exclusive university.
"I don’t want any rewards. I just listen to their stories and try to guide them. During my time, I had to fend for myself. No one was there to guide me," he says.
"I was a former street child, I know how it is to live on the streets. I was in conflict with the law often, I was a drug runner, user. But now here I am, just returning the favor to help these kids," he said.
Now a father to a young daughter and two teenage boys, Nerja lives in a modest home near Manila’s Chinatown district, where he is well-respected, even by the neighborhood toughs and petty criminals to whom he offers advice, and helps out with funeral and education expenses by raising donations.
The toughest part of the job, he says, is trying to convince the children to abandon the streets, which many consider a huge playground where they are free to break all rules, Nerja says.
"In many cases they would stay for a few days at a sheltering facility, but run away again, lured by their friends and the drugs," Nerja says.
"Some would later approach me and ask to be returned, and that is the time you know they are prepared to move on."
Others who are in their early teens are likely to remain on the streets for a long time, he says.
"But what is important is they know you are there for them. They treasure that," Nerja says, as he dispenses sweets to the children tugging at his legs. "I can live and die with the thought I have helped."
A plump-looking woman shyly smiles at Nerja and grasps his hands to press on her forehead, a sign of respect in this Roman Catholic country. The woman used to be under Nerja’s care, but now has a family of her own.
On another city block, Nerja finds a 10-year-old kid wearing an oversized T-shirt, his eyes empty and cheeks hollowed out from days of hunger and scrounging the mound of rotting garbage nearby.
"Tatay Butch, please take me to a shelter now. I no longer take drugs, and I promise to behave," the boy pleads. Nerja hugs him.
Nerja promises to come back for the boy, who says he does not remember his parents’ names or where he is from.
"That is my payback. When they finally say they are ready to leave the streets. It’s a long process, but we get there slowly," Nerja says. "If a child changes his ways, that’s very rewarding for me."