ASSIST News Service

 

Walking along a portion of Roxas Boulevard which parallels Manila Bay-your senses are assaulted by a combination of polluted water-urine and faeces.

The area-just past the US Embassy-is one where Filipino and international tourists like to visit.

Manila skyline. The city recemtly hosted Pope Francis. PICTURE:Gigi Simbre/www.freeimages.com

Filipino media has been buzzing over a scandal that erupted in the wake of that recent trip. The country's secretary of social welfare is accused of “hiding” street people from Pope Francis.

Businesses dot the boulevard-ranging from carts selling snacks to individuals offering to give you a massage to a manicure and pedicure. Children play in the dirt-apparently happy with the little they have.

While this isn’t anything new-what happened just prior to the pope’s recent visit to Manila is. Filipino media has been buzzing over a scandal that erupted in the wake of that recent trip. The country's secretary of social welfare is accused of “hiding” street people from Pope Francis.

An article by Hannah Torregoza for the Manila Bulletin reported that Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Corazon “Dinky" Soliman admitted that the agency rounded up about 100 homeless families and took them to an air conditioned resort in Nasugbu-Batangas-as part of the preparations for the pope's visit.

Soliman said the timing was coincidental with the upcoming event. As columnist Jullie Yap Daza writing in the Manila Bulletin said: “Family by family they were bundled off-and made to disappear into beach resorts for six days to enjoy the life of vacationists and campers".

Walking along Roxas Boulevard-a family attracted my attention-and that of my fiancé Elma Cabug. It was a man-his wife and their three grand kids. While they weren't part of the controversial resort experience-Danny and Rosie told Elma (who translated for me for these and other interviewees) that they were told by the police to move and not be as visible.

After years of going all over-they finally have a regular place for their street business. Fearing possible retaliation and losing their spot if they didn't comply-they moved as asked. Now they're back in their spot.

The next day-we met Ramona Alde-a reflexologist. She’s there in her spot seven days a week from about 4pm till 6am. Reflexology is the application of pressure to specific points and areas on the feet-hands or ears.

Ramona was also told to leave in advance of the pope’s visit. She didn’t want to move-but like others-didn’t want to make any trouble for herself by arguing with the police-so she complied.

I asked her what she would say to the pope if she had been given the opportunity to meet him. She said she would ask the pope to pray for good health for her-and good things for her family.

Ramona’s training comes from a local Catholic Church-where she studied once a week for three months for three hours at a time. She charges 100 pesos (about $US2) for a reflexology session. By way of disclosure-I gave her 100 pesos for the time she spent talking to us.

A little later-we met Elizabeth. She lives in a makeshift shack less than three feet from the waters of Manila Bay with her husband and five children. They’ve been there for about three months-after the family could no longer afford the rent for even a room lacking a toilet in a nearby squatter’s area.

Her husband presently works at a local construction site. Elizabeth said the family didn’t get told to leave by what she said were the three branches of police carrying out the operation-because she and her family tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.

I asked her what she thought the pope’s feelings might have been about the “clean up” effort. She said she believed the pope would have wanted to see the poor people living in the conditions that she and her family-as well as many others-endure daily.

Elizabeth said the most difficult part about living there is the rainy season. However-it’s also very hard when the youngest of her five children (in elementary school) cries - regularly - because there’s not even enough money to buy an adequate amount of rice for breakfast and she’s hungry. (A little more disclosure - we bought some groceries for the family). To make matters worse-she has holes in her shoes and socks.

Elizabeth would like Americans to understand why she and her family live the way they do. She said it’s because they have no choice. “I’m a poor person living in an urban area with no options,” she said.

However-Elizabeth has dreams. While she can’t afford it yet-she’d like to get a passport soon. That would enable her to perhaps travel to Saudi Arabia-where she could work as a domestic helper and send enough money home to give her kids a better future. Her husband and family members would take care of the children while she was gone.

She thought the money spent on that “vacation” spent shuffling the homeless out of sight could have been more profitably spent on many more families who call Manila Bay “home.”

And while perhaps the idea sounded heavenly to the government officials who cooked it up -- neither its origin or its execution were birthed there.

I thought again of Daza-who wrote rhetorically-“What's wrong with letting the people of grime and grease enjoy an all-expenses-paid vacation?"

She answered-“They didn't know what was going on-where they were going and why. Denying them their identity-even as the homeless indigent-was wrong.”

Manila Bulletin columnist Romeo Pefianco dubbed the DSWD event a “frolic.”

He asked what “permanent benefit” was derived from the experience by those individuals who went to the resort.

Pefianco continued-“Were they given shoes to replace rubber slippers full of holes? Did five days of banquets/fine dining turn their pallor from pale to light orange or pink?”

We all know the answer to that-and even if their “pallor” did change momentarily-by now it’s most certainly right back to where it was before.

With that in mind-wouldn’t it have been better to have someone ask the homeless prior to the papal visit-“We have a very important visitor coming - the pope. Could you clean up around your area and wear the best clothing you have?” Who could complain about that?