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DSWD hit for treatment of homeless families during papal visit

A day before the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines last week, dozens of homeless families from Metro Manila found themselves being taken to a resort in Batangas, allegedly to "hide" them.

According to Catherine Scerri, development manager of the non-profit organization Bahay Tuluyan, seven buses of homeless families arrived at the Chateau Royale Sports and Country Club in Nasugbu on the night before the pope's arrival on January 15.

In an interview with GMA News Online on Thursday, Scerri said she found out about this after she spoke with the families under the care of her organization in Malate. She said the families who were taken to Batangas were brought back to Manila on January 19, after Pope Francis left the Philippines.

“They said that there is normally an annual outing for the MCCT, but they also had the impression that this was being done so they wouldn't be seen during the Pope's visit,” Scerri said.

MCCT stands for Modified Conditional Cash Transfer Program, which is under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and focuses on homeless families and indigenous people.

Scerri said the families told her that they busied themselves in the resort by attending seminars and watching the papal activities on TV.

“They didn't feel like it was a coincidence. And also they felt that if they didn't go, they'd be forcefully removed from the area,” she said.

Scerri said that when the families were brought back to Manila, they found their sleeping areas bearing signs that said, “Bawal matulog dito.”

The alleged setup did not sit well with Scerri.

“For the Philippines, it (papal visit) was a happy, joyous occasion, and every family in the streets had every right to be part of it,” she said.

Scerri added that to make the families “even more marginalized and stigmatized by making them feel that they have to disappear or to be invisible during that visit, it's very disappointing.”

In an interview with Super Radyo dzBB on Friday, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman confirmed that they brought a hundred street families to a resort during the papal visit, but quickly added that it was not a move to cover up poverty but a way to protect them.

“Alam niyo, hindi natin maitatago ang kahirapan... 'Yun hong mga lokal na pamahalaan, nagsikap na gawing maayos 'yung Roxas Boulevard (noong papal visit)... Bahagi n'yan 'yung pagsisiguro na hindi malalagay sa peligro 'yung mga pamilya. 'Yung pagtingin na itinago sila 'yun siguro 'yung dating,” she said.

She said that the trip was also a chance for the families to be given an orientation on the different programs of the government for them, including the Pantawid Pamilya Program.

In a statement, the DSWD said, "Reaching out to street children is a regular program of the Department meant to keep them off the street where it is dangerous for their health and safety.”

It also added that the MCCT “is likewise a continuing program for them, since 2013. We are not doing all these for the Pope’s visit.”

Street dwellers already vulnerable

Scerri said that the homeless families have long been vulnerable even before the Pope's visit.

“These families have been on the street for years and years and years. I mean, they were already vulnerable. They are already vulnerable everyday,” she said.

“If they were so vulnerable, why get them from the street then dump them again after the pope's visit? If really Manila was not so safe, then why is it safe to the six to seven million people who attended the pope's Mass, who attended the different activities? It seems really inconsistent,” she added.

Not the first time

For its part, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said "hiding poverty" during international events is not new, adding it happened during the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Makati last year. It said it wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit later this year.

“What the DSWD does is unacceptable and should be stopped,” said Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes Jr. “We believe that the same activities will be repeated during the APEC summit in November. Public funds are being used to conceal poverty, not help the poor.”

He added, “Poor people need jobs and homes, not outings and camping trips intended to hide them from the world. Use public funds to really help the poor, not hide the poor. That is what the DSWD fails to grasp. It relies not just on dole-outs but also on the cosmetic approach to addressing poverty.”

Meanwhile, Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon is set to file next Monday a resolution urging the House committee on Metro Manila development to investigate the DSWD for allegedly locking up street children ahead of papal visit.

Sympathy ploy

Bahay Tuluyan's Scerri expressed her disappointment with DSWD after Soliman supposedly said that non-government organizations are making an issue out of the outing to get more sympathy from the public and aid from donors.

“We're disappointed with the allegations that come from DSWD. There's an article in Time... that made some suggestions that NGOs were drawing attention to this issue as a sympathy ploy or to get funding,” she said. —KBK/RSJ, GMA News