MANILA -- Antonia Larica ekes out her living waiting for the garbage trucks to arrive.

Since coming here from Tarlac Province north of Manila 10 months ago, Larica, 58, has lived the life of a scavenger, one of Manila's nameless, faceless thousands who have built sprawling squatter communities at garbage dumps. Sometimes they find salable plastic, sometimes scrap metal, perhaps a discarded canvas sack.

"In the province, we had no job and no land to grow rice," she said. "Here we are scavengers, but it is better here than in the provinces."

Larica lives on "Smokey Mountain" in the Tondo slum north of the city center -- the most notorious of the capital area's 468 slum communities. Manila's urban poor comprise up to 35 percent of the metropolitan area's 8 million people, according to figures from the United Nations Children's Fund. Government officials say the squatter population is growing by 5 to 6 percent each year.

They remain largely invisible to many residents, hidden beneath bridges and highway overpasses, unseen from the spacious green of the Manila Polo Club or from the cozy clubhouse of the Manila Golf Club in Makati, where the city's elite businessmen and diplomats meet for lunch and exchange the current political gossip.

Despite President Corazon Aquino's campaign pledge to "give priority to the country's poor," the poor, particularly the urban poor, remain one of her government's most daunting problems.

As the number of squatters increases, Aquino's failure to come to grips with the problem has fueled much of the current disillusionment with the government, although Aquino herself remains popular.

Twenty-one months into her term, Aquino's government still lacks a coherent policy for aiding the urban poor. Various departments, agencies and commissions have pursued often contradictory programs that do not resolve basic questions about squatters' rights. Many who work with the squatters say they become victims of corrupt land developers and speculators in the scramble for real estate expansion.

Manila's two extremes -- wretched poverty beside unabashed affluence -- create an almost surreal atmosphere for a foreign visitor. The parking lot outside Congress is a virtual showroom of Mercedes-Benzes. Inside, the members debate in lofty language the best way to lift the country out of its economic mess.

Manila's urban poor are mostly unemployed squatters -- immigrants from the rural countryside who build makeshift shanties on unclaimed or government land, atop garbage dumps, or along riverbanks.

From the ranks of the immigrants has sprung a second generation of city-born poor, children of the garbage dumps destined for a future of misery. Officials estimate that internal growth now accounts for more than half the increase in the squatter population.

"They're growing up as street kids, beggars -- it's a tragic thing," said the Rev. John J. Carroll, director of the Institute on Church and Social Issues, a Jesuit-run think tank and social action agency.

For many of the young women, the only escape from poverty is prostitution or working as bar girls in the Ermita tourist district's go-go bars or the striptease haunts in suburban Quezon City. Many, like 21-year-old Shirley from the squatter area in Santa Ana, are the only wage earners in the family. Shirley supports both parents, who are slightly retarded, a sister, a brother and her own year-old baby.

In most studies and surveys of urban poverty, the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who support their families as prostitutes are not counted among the urban poor. In most Ermita district bars, the women receive about $3 a night for bikini-clad dancing, plus a small portion from any drinks customers buy for them. When they go home with customers, the fee for sex can average about $25, putting them well above the country's legal minimum wage, equivalent to $2.50 per day.

"Cory hasn't been able to move in and solve matters," said Carroll, the Jesuit priest, who celebrates Sunday mass in one of the slums. "Cory's own instincts are in sympathy with the poor -- but she doesn't think too much in structural terms."

Since Aquino came to power, he said, "The only positive difference has been mainly psychological. People on the whole feel Cory cares about them, is concerned."

Diogenes Osabel, a member of Aquino's Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor, said the government should feel heightened pressure to move swiftly and enact programs for the poor. "As far as the urban poor go, this is the only sector of society that has exercised maximum tolerance," he said. "All the other sectors, including the farmers, have undertaken mass action to dramatize their concerns. Only the urban poor has so far refrained from any type of mass action."

But government policy is still mired in confusion.

While the national housing authority tries to relocate squatters and demolish their shacks, the government commission for the poor is busy going to court to block the relocations. While the Forestry Department is claiming jurisdiction over some squatter lands as unclassified forest area, the Bureau of Lands is busy validating developers' claims to the same land, sometimes based on land deeds granted more than 100 years ago, during Spanish rule.

The human effect of the chaotic policy was illustrated two months ago in the Marikina squatter community. Police entered the slum area, rounding up and arresting 44 squatters.

The action came under a decree left over from the regime of former president Ferdinand Marcos that made squatting illegal. The court order arose from a 1983 lawsuit by a developer who wanted to expand an adjacent subdivision and claimed that the squatter land was his.

"That's the way you get land in the Philippines -- you just find a place where the squatters live, go in and pay the back taxes, and tell the courts it was yours," said Pacifico Maghacot Jr., another member of the urban poor commission.

In this case, the government housing authority had designated the squatter site as one of its targets in an urban "self-help" program. The commission on urban poor, working with the leftist group Bandilla, intervened and bailed out the squatters.

The commission, whose members were appointed by Aquino, issued a press release denouncing the incident as another case in "the Aquino administration's record of ironies" and again urged her to scrap the antisquatting decree.

The incident has left the squatter community feeling frightened and vulnerable, facing eviction from homes in which many of them have lived for more than 20 years.

"That was a mountain when we came there. We leveled it," said Corazon Rali, a mother of nine who moved to the squatter area from the Bicol region 16 years ago. "Now we are never leaving. We are not squatters. We are settlers."

Despite the actions, squatters such as Carmelita Mendoza say they bear no ill will toward Aquino.

Critics of the government say Aquino must personally step in and clear up the disarray, the same way she stepped in and cleared up confusion about government policy toward illegal strikes in a bold speech to business executives at the Manila Hotel last month.

She must make it known, these observers said, whether she favors the continued efforts to remove the squatters or the efforts to develop some squatter sites as "pilot" areas.