Manila’s homeless also hope to meet Pope Francis

Michelle Dimailig, Toby Roca
Manila’s homeless also hope to meet Pope Francis
In a city with the highest homeless rate in the world, the homeless of Manila weigh in on what the Pope's visit means to them

MANILA, Philippines – Papal fever is sweeping across the Philippines as the predominantly Catholic nation prepares to receive Pope Francis for what is expected to be a historic 5-day apostolic visit this week.

The highly-anticipated arrival of Francis, who has been portrayed as a People’s Pope, has brought a sense of excitement to many Filipinos, including Metro Manila’s homeless.

Homeless in the Philippines

The capital region has the highest homeless rate of any major world city, with more than 3 million Metro Manila residents living in the streets and in informal settlements that are vulnerable to demolition. 

A number of homeless individuals live in the streets around the Apostolic Nunciature, the official residence of Pope Francis in his 5-day stay in the country.

Among them is Justine Rivera, 25, who has been living on various Manila sidewalks for the past 15 years.

With him is Gwendilyn, 20, whom Justine has cared for as a sort of adopted sister since picking her up 11 years ago.

Preparing for the Pope

Rivera says he got word of Pope Francis’ visit to the country by reading newspapers thrown in the garbage.

This will be the second time that he’ll witness a pope getting close to the Filipino faithful, having been among the crowds as a child during now-Blessed John Paul II’s papal visit in 1995.

He says he is grateful to have been part of John Paul II’s record-breaking mass concluding the 1995 World Youth Day, an encounter that has made him feel blessed despite his difficult circumstances.

And he has been preparing for Francis’ arrival in the country. He even has his outfits planned out.

“Some of the clothes I’ve picked up, I took them from the junk piles we sell. I want to prepare for [the Pope’s arrival] because I really want to see him,” he says in Filipino.

For her part, Gwendilyn says she wants to tell Pope Francis how much she wants to meet her real parents.

She explains that her foster father abused and abandoned her when she was 9 years old. She was picked up by Rivera when he saw her loitering alone in Manila’s Lawton Plaza. 

“I wish I could see my real parents, be with my siblings because I couldn’t be happy [without them]. I want to go back to school,” she says in Filipino, unable to hold back her tears.

Not excited

Rodolfo Santos, meanwhile, has not caught the papal fever which has swept the country since the CBCP announced in June 2014 Francis’ plans to visit Manila and typhoon-ravaged Tacloban this year.

Rodolfo Santos has spent his entire adult life living in the streets of Manila, interrupted only by a three-year stay in Manila City Jail due to a drug-related conviction. He says people like him don't need papal help. Photo by Toby Roca/UP Aperture.

The 48-year-old has heard of Pope Francis, seen him on storeowners’ television sets and on the front pages of the papers on newsstands. 

He knows many Filipinos are excited to see Francis on Philippine soil, but he doesn’t share the enthusiasm.

“I don’t need to meet him. What’s the point, would he help me, will he be able to give me anything? I don’t think so,” Santos says in Filipino.

“If [the Pope] helps our needy countrymen that he meets during his visit, then I’m okay with that,” he adds.

Mang Ompong, as he is known among Malate locals and his fellow homeless, says despite his indifference to the papal visit, he wishes that no harm befall Pope Francis during his stay in the Philippines.

He recalls seeing John Paul II when the late pope went to Manila in 1995 for World Youth Day, remembering the now-canonized church patriarch parading along Roxas Boulevard in a bulletproof popemobile. 

Compassion in the streets

Mang Ompong has stationed himself in front of a store along the Leon Guinto Street side of the Nunciature, where he hopes to stay for the duration of the 5-day papal visit.

With him is a plastic crate containing his pet gosling and crutches he made himself, and a worn backpack made heavy by the canned goods given to him by people as alms.

He complains of a chronic back ache which he says began after he was hit by a jeep in 2011, an accident from which he has recovered only recently. 

Life as a homeless individual is difficult and often dangerous, but Santos says he sees plenty of compassion in the streets. 

“People like me don’t need [the Pope’s] help because there are many of us here; we are all brothers and sisters. People give whenever they can.” –

Michelle Dimailig and Toby Roca are Rappler Movers from PUP and UP, respectively.

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