The Philippine government came under fire on Friday after admitting that hundreds of homeless people were taken off Manila’s streets and put into luxury accommodation during Pope Francis’ recent visit, when he preached compassion for the poor.
Lawmakers demanded an explanation after Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman revealed that 490 beggars and homeless people were taken to air-conditioned log cabins at a resort near Manila for the January 15 to 19 visit.
“The Pope would have wanted to see the Philippines, warts and all. Let us not pretend that we are a First World country,” Rep. Terry Ridon, who is initiating a congressional inquiry, said.
Soliman said the street people, many of whom live in shanties and hammocks tied to palm trees along the Manila Bay seafront, were removed from Roxas Boulevard before the visit.
A record crowd of six million flooded the bayside road last Sunday to hear Pope Francis celebrate Mass in nearby Luneta (Rizal Park).
But the homeless were instead taken to plush accommodation at a hilltop resort south of Manila during the trip, before being deposited back on the streets hours after the pontiff’s departure last Monday.
Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the left-wing group Bayan, criticized the decision, saying the government was “whitewashing poverty.”
But Soliman said the homeless would have been “vulnerable to syndicates and discriminated (against) a lot” had they stayed in the area.
“You cannot hide poverty. When the Pope landed, the first thing he saw was the shanties by the river,” she told Agence France-Presse.
The Chateau Royale resort where the homeless people stayed offers swimming pools and rock-climbing facilities, and usually charges up to P24,000 for a room per night, according to its website.
Soliman said the government did not pay the full price, without providing details.
Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said Soliman should face a congressional probe to explain “why she committed such an affront to the dignity of these streetchildren and homeless people who were reportedly whisked away from the streets of Manila to a resort in Batangas.”
“The problem of extreme poverty, as evidenced by the beggars and streetchildren, is a very real problem that needs to be addressed. This problem should not be swept under the rug.
Hiding them does not solve the problem of vagrancy. Now that the Pope has left, they are back on the streets, fending for themselves,” he added.
“My advice to Secretary Soliman is for her to continue what she just did—take care of the beggars, streetchildren and the homeless, feed them and give them a place to stay. This is the reason why they have an almost P100-billion budget to help the poorest of the poor,” Atienza said.