No ‘hiding the poor’
The biggest controversy in the ruckus being raised against the “field trip” organized by the Department of Social Welfare and Development is Sen. Bongbong Marcos speaking out against the practice of “hiding the poor.” It was not right, he said, for government to even attempt to herd the homeless, vagrants, street people and street vendors and trundle them off to a resort just to keep them out of Pope Francis’ sight during his visit last week.
It’s ironical because the one who began the practice of “shielding” the poor from the sensitive eyes of visitors (mainly by erecting walls to hide settler communities on the route from the airport) was none other than the senator’s mother, now congresswoman Imelda Romualdez Marcos.
But while the DSWD, especially Secretary Dinky Soliman, essentially has my sympathy on this issue–I am sure at least that they were motivated by the purest and most innocuous of reasons–I do feel uncomfortable about the thought that the poorest and most marginalized folk had to be taken out of the city while the Pontiff was here. As a government spokesperson herself said, “You cannot hide the poor.” And that by merely looking out the window of the plane as it was about to land at Villamor Airbase, the Pope would have known about the poverty of this land, since shanties line the coast of Manila Bay and the rusting GI roofs of urban poor communities attest to how poor Filipinos are.
Was it, as Soliman asserts, merely a coincidence that the “family outing” was timed just when the Pope arrived? Were the families collected and transported to that resort in Batangas taken there on their own free will and did they stay on their own volition for those five days? And to what end, aside from being swept out of the Pope’s sight, was the gathering meant for?
* * *
Let me stress that I don’t agree with romanticizing poverty, as so many critics of the outing seem to be doing. There is nothing attractive to it, and there is nothing wrong in seeking to end it.
Ask any of the 490 beggars, vendors, homeless and vagrants brought to the resort if they regretted their five-day “vacation,” and I’m sure they would on average say they enjoyed themselves. Sure, TV news reports focused on some who said they had been forced, coerced or duped into boarding those buses, while others complained about being put on a schedule instead of being allowed to loll about in bed or by the pool. But I for one am happy for them, for this break from the daily grind, the daily ordeal of eking out a living while coping with hunger and insecurity. And give the children a break! The five days at the resort would surely have served them well, since there were no classes anyway, and the vacation was surely a treat.
Even the poor don’t want to be poor. And any escape from the grinding realities of poverty would surely prove to be a welcome respite–before they would have to return to their old haunts, to the same old struggle for survival.
* * *
That is one of the things that cause discomfort as the issue comes before the public. Did those five days help the poor families long-term? Or did the break only serve to underline their misery, highlight the contrast between their everyday lives and the good time they enjoyed while in the resort?
One of the motivations for organizing the outing, it was explained, was to evaluate the families and see who could be eligible for the Pantawid or 4Ps program. The program provides monthly subsidies for poor families with school-age children, to enable the children to go to school, and the mothers (especially those who are pregnant) and children to receive regular healthcare and follow-up, and then gather the beneficiaries to regular sessions on different aspects of family life and gender relations.
In other areas of the country, the evaluation is done on site, with DSWD personnel visiting the homes of potential beneficiaries. But perhaps because the folks brought to the resort are street people and thus don’t have permanent addresses, there was a need to gather them in one location, one occasion.
* * *
What sort of follow-up is being done to give the itinerant poor more permanent help? Some social media commentaries pointed out that instead of five days of lectures, exercises and bonding in a resort, the money spent could have been better used for health checkups. But would hardened denizens of the streets willingly surrender their independence to visit a health center?
Others say the money would have been better spent on housing. Or on providing these street families accommodations that give them a semblance of permanence. In other cities abroad, governments have been buying abandoned hotels and housing street families there, and records show that once given a sense of security and permanence, the parents are better able to support their families.
The most disturbing thing about this story is the “hidden” but patently obvious reason for this outing. Government denies this, but at least one consequence of bringing them to Batangas was their disappearance from their usual haunts in the bayside area around Manila Bay.
There is no hiding the poor, obviously. But there was apparently something to gain from keeping the homeless, the beggars and the itinerant vendors out of sight during those days of euphoria and elation.
The Pope reminds us that there is much to “learn from the poor,” just as the poor surely needed to feel his presence, even just a brief glimpse of him, as his popemobile sped by. It was a teaching opportunity that, for the 490 poor folk vacationing in Batangas, was lost amid the hubbub of the fervid reception for the Vicar of Christ.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.