Were those experiencing poverty intentionally hidden when Pope Francis visited Manila?
Ever since his election nearly two years ago, Pope Francis has made it a point to reach out to those experiencing homelessness in our societies. He’s eaten alongside them. He’s renovated the bathrooms in St. Peter’s Square to include showers where they can wash themselves. Now he’s providing free haircuts for them.
After all of these compassionate actions toward our marginalized brothers and sisters, I can only imagine what Francis said when he heard that the Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) confirmed that 340 members of 100 homeless families had been relocated during his visit to Manila two weeks ago.
The people were sent to a beach resort to participate in the Modified Conditional Cash Transfer (MCCT) Program, a six-day government program to offer “assistance to street families ... with access to social services and economic opportunities for the improvement of their living conditions.”
The timing of this movement, however, seemed a little too convenient and a little fishy to some. House of Representatives member Terry Ridon called the move a “clearing operation.” He also stated, “[It is] truly horrendous … The pope would have wanted to see the Philippines, warts and all. Let us not pretend that we are a first-world country.”
Social welfare secretary Corazon Soliman insisted it was “not for keeping them out of sight” but stated that the government was already planning to enroll the families in the program. They thought it was the opportune moment during the papal visit to make sure “Roxas Boulevard [a main road in Manila] was in a secure and safe state.”
According to Ridon, this is “not the first time that DSWD (had) made an attempt to cover up the massive inequality in the country.” Many groups accused the government of “whitewashing” poverty.
Time and time again, Pope Francis has called Christians to be in solidarity with the poor. This does not mean that we simply push them aside or try to make their physical appearance more appealing when they are unsightly. Actions like this are a quick fix to a cycle that simply continues to get worse unless the root of the problem is addressed. We are called to work toward building more affordable housing, to advocate for policies that work for mental health and addiction services, to do our part to debunk the stereotypes that all homeless are lazy or not trying to get out of poverty.
Whether or not the Philippine government intentionally rid the streets of those experiencing homelessness to get them away from him, I’m sure Pope Francis was dismayed by what happened. Those who were forced to leave were exactly those he was there to see.