Were street families hidden from the Pope?
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The pope has left the building and its old tenants are back.
During the Pope’s 5-day visit that ended Monday, January 19, many Filipinos were impressed by how clean the streets were. Critics, however, questioned the government’s preparations, accusing authorities of deliberately "hiding" poverty.
Street families were allegedly removed from the streets of Malate during the papal visit, according to Bahay Tuluyan, a non-governmental organization (NGO) advocating children’s rights. It is the same NGO that exposed the dire conditions of Frederico and other street children staying in a government-run center in Manila.
The issue comes days after news broke out about street children allegedly being caged and kept away from the Pope’s view. The story published by The Daily Mail was immediately denied by DSWD, which said that the photos used by the British tabloid were old.
'Resort, not cages'
Bahay Tuluyan observed that a group of street families returned to Malate on Monday afternoon, January 19, the same day Pope Francis left Manila. The families told Bahay Tuluyan at least 7 buses brought them to a resort in Nasugbu, Batangas.
They reportedly stayed in Chateau Royale Sports and Country Club from January 14 and left on January 19, as organized by the Department of Social Welfare and Development-National Capital Region (DSWD-NCR) office.
“They stayed in a hotel and went swimming,” said Catherine Scerri, Bahay Tuluyan deputy director.
Rappler called the resort and got confirmation that DSWD did arrange accommodation for families during those dates. “Estimated 600 individuals; they stayed for 5 days,” a source said.
The families are under DSWD’s Modified Conditional Cash Transfer (MCCT) Program, Bahay Tuluyan said. MCCT provides monthly cash grants – for health and education assistance – for “families with special needs,” including the homeless.
The families were told the trip was part of an annual “outing and orientation” for MCCT families. They confirmed that DSWD normally conducts gatherings for them, but that the Batangas trip was abruptly announced. “Two days before sila umalis, dun lang sila sinabihan,” Scerri said. (They were only told about the Batangas trip, two days prior to the trip.)
Such gatherings are usually announced ahead of time, the families said. Some families were told they would be “caught” (huhulihin) if they do not join the outing, Scerri added. “Their information comes from the barangay level.”
Rappler called the office of DSWD-NCR Regional Director Alicia Bonoan for a statement, but was advised to direct questions to the department’s Central Office instead.
Welfare Secretary Corazon Juliano-Soliman confirmed that the said event was part of DSWD's MCCT orientation and registration.
"Yes, it’s true. 100 families or 490-something individuals, that effort was part of registering them as partner beneficiaries of MCCT. It’s a continuing process," Soliman told Rappler over a phone interview on Wednesday, January 21. "These families were newly identified by LGUs."
The budget for the Batangas event came from the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) funds of DSWD-NCR. The families were identified by the local government units (LGUs) of Manila, Pasay, and partly from Paranaque and Quezon City.
Soliman added that the families are now temporarily residing at DSWD facilities such as Reception and Action Centers (RAC) and the Jose Fabella Center.
Was the event an attempt to keep the street families away from the pope?
"Actually, yes and no," said Soliman. "It’s not to keep them out of sight, but this is an LGU effort to take them from the areas which were identified where people will be mostly congregating. For safety. They didn't want these families to be in those areas."
"But no, it was not for keeping them out of sight. We do reach out to families even before the announcement of the pope coming," she added.
Soliman clarified that not all street families were taken to Batangas, noting that many were still present along Taft and MH Del Pilar in Malate. "During the papal visit, you can also see street kids in front of Nunciature," she said.
"Funny coincidence," Scerri however pointed out.
During the papal visit, DSWD boasted how former children were invited to perform for the pope. A 12-year-old girl, a former street child, also saddened Filipinos when she asked Pope Francis why children suffer.
Amid controversies inundating DSWD, Soliman received praise from NGOs and children's rights advocates after announcing that her department is in the process of shutting down Manila’s RAC, the children's shelter where Frederico’s now infamous photo was taken.
The department, however, is once again under the spotlight. This time, not in relation to alleged "caged street children," but for allegedly sending them to a resort during the papal visit.
"We cannot hide poverty. We cannot hide it from the pope, it's here," said Soliman. – Rappler.com