When Women Lead: How One Entrepreneur Turned Her Café into a Homeless Shelter During Lockdown

A thriving entrepreneur decided to put her personal ambition aside to set up a homeless shelter in Camarines Sur to give 19 children a better chance at life.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Popburri, a neighborhood café in Quezon City decided to close its business. But it wasn’t because of poor sales. On the contrary, their tempting baked goods and uniquely flavored fruit popsicles were more in demand than ever, as the pandemic made comfort food and sweet treats more popular. Its proprietor, Filipino-American Camille Dowling, felt called to focus on more urgent matters: establishing a homeless shelter in her community.

A Call to Action

Prior to the pandemic, Dowling had already built a relationship with the homeless in their community, with Popburri regularly giving them their unsold bread for the day. But when the pandemic erupted, the government decided to arrest people loitering in the streets, leaving the homeless in an impossible predicament.

Initially, Dowling invited nine homeless individuals, people she had known from before, to stay in a closed-off portion of their commercial space. But their number kept growing, and she refused to turn anyone away, as the homeless were being arrested on the streets. The nine people doubled in number and just kept growing until they had 72 people in a matter of days. Profit no longer seemed relevant. Dowling closed the business and turn her café into a full-blown homeless shelter.  

“They were literally arresting everyone. So those people came, and it allowed them to just not get arrested,” she recalled.

A half-finished three-story commercial building served as housing for the 72 people, while a doctor neighbor helped put up sanitation stations to keep everyone safe. Their residents would sleep in the homeless shelter in the evenings, but left after breakfast every morning to work. They followed the sanitation protocol upon return—shower, change and go through all the stations—before they could have their meal.

Donations also started pouring in, from businesses to individuals who gave whatever they could. “We had neighbors who would just drop stuff off,” she recalled. “It was so crazy. It was a complete circus, but in a very good way.”

“I had all these children that had nobody batting for them, who should have been in school but were not, who were illiterate and with no parents,” she explained. “So I think anyone in the same position would have also been like, oh screw the business.”

Abrupt Ending

Unfortunately, the Local Government ordered them to close the homeless shelter down after only nine days. 

“They basically said we didn’t have the permits, and our response to the Barangay Captain was people are dying and you want paper work,” she recounted.  The incident went viral and the public was naturally outraged.

“Everyone [Quezon City LGU] got completely trashed online,” Dowling said.  The backlash pressured the Local Government to open its own makeshift homeless shelter at the Quezon City Circle. Dowling and her team continued to support by providing the nightly dinner of the shelter residents for another year. “We were just constantly cooking,” she chuckled.

Meanwhile, Dowling could now retrieve her entrepreneurial hat. She reopened her café and opened two more branches in Quezon City, which mostly catered to take-outs and pastry delivery. “We had a market, people were constantly buying,” she recalled. They were not eating in restaurants [because of the pandemic]. It allowed us to have a share in a market we would not traditionally have,” Dowling explained.

A New Business Plan

While business was thriving, Dowling observed that the homeless in their feeding program included many unsupervised children. Some had been totally abandoned and were living on their own, while others still had a parent or relative but were mostly neglected. None of the children were going to school. She had a persistent, nagging urge to do more.

Dowling began to dream of a permanent shelter for the street children and began scouting for properties, until she found a six-hectare property near the beach, all the way in a remote area in Camarines Sur.

By late 2021, Dowling had closed all three of her cafes, and with 19 children in tow, relocated to the province to set up Redeemer Homeless Mission.

“I had all these children that had nobody batting for them, who should have been in school but were not, who were illiterate and with no parents,” she explained. “So I think anyone in the same position would have also been like, oh screw the business.”

homeless shelter

When Profit Becomes Irrelevant

Today, all of the 19 children in Redeemer Homeless Mission, mostly young girls, are able to go to the nearest public school, a 30-minute walk away. Dowling, who studied Business Economics from the University of the Philippines, and Microbiology from George Washington University, personally supervises their shelter’s supplementary reading and math classes. These, and other skills classes, are also extended to the other children in the community.

“There’s not a single kid who is not in school. Last year three graduated with honors,” Dowling shared proudly. It is certainly no easy feat for children who previously could not even read and write. “They’re a testament that it’s not that hard for children to do well, if you give them attention,” she added. 

The shelter is currently planning to construct more spaces to fulfill their goal of housing a total of 40 children. It is also committed to support the children through high school and assist them in securing scholarships for college.

Though the mission is her priority, she has not forgotten her business either. Once technical concerns (such as erratic electricity) are ironed out, she plans to reopen Popburri. But this time, Dowling plans to focus on mass-producing her naturally-flavored fruit popsicles, and distribute them commercially. This way, she will have a steady source of financing for their mission and provide jobs and opportunities for the entire community as well.

I’ve never loved my life as much as I do now.”

homeless shelter

Dowling admits that her life choices may seem odd to some. But it was something she felt called to do, and she is now happier for it.

“I wish I could give people a snippet. I wish you could see how much they’ve grown.” She goes on to share how much the children have changed in a safe and caring environment, how one child who used to cuss every third word is now serving in church and getting honors in school, or how a previously abused child who had nightmares at night is now slowly healing. These are the stories that get her out of bed every morning. “I’ve never loved my life as much as I do now,” she said. To Dowling, this is the greatest wealth.