While millions of Filipinos are still nurturing a Pope Francis fever after having been touched by his holy presence and messages that went to the heart, something disgusting has been turning up. Some international papers have reported that the Philippine government has locked up street children and beggars during the five-day visit of Pope Francis.
Although Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman has denied that her agency had rounded up and locked away street children in detention centers, she admitted that they picked up some 490 people or 100 families living on the streets of Metro Manila before the Pope’s visit. She claimed that they were treated to a vacation in a resort in Batangas to keep them safe from the crowds that were expected to fill up Metro Manila streets.
Even if Secretary Soliman were given the benefit of doubt that she did not lock up the street children in dire conditions, as Fr. Shay Cullen had reported, something still does not add up. The Holy Father visited the Philippines precisely to bless the poor and bring them a message of hope. In fact, in an interview after his visit, he said that for him, the most moving and memorable moment during his five-day tour in the country was his visit to Tacloban, the province most ravaged by typhoon Yolanda in 2013. He said that there, the poor met him; shed tears of joy simply at seeing him and being blessed by him; despite the rains and winds that threatened their safety yet again. Throughout his stay he exhorted everyone to extend mercy and compassion to the poor. He hit corruption in government saying it takes away what should go to the poor.
If the intention of the Social Welfare Secretary was to give the street habitués a treat in a resort with funds from the amended conditional cash transfer program, should this activity not be done on a regular basis then? Or, better yet, shouldn’t these homeless families be taken out of the streets altogether and given decent shelters using the CCT funds? This program was approved by Congress for poverty alleviation, not for cosmetic exercises to make Metro Manila look poverty-free when visitors come. The billions of pesos allocated for the CCT program could be put to better use if more shelters for the homeless were built or if jobs were created by government to give the poor a living.
Party-list representative Terry Ridon correctly said that “The pope would have wanted to see the Philippines, warts and all. Let us not pretend that we are a first-world country.” Ridon added that the government’s act of sanitizing the streets to make the country look good to the international community reeks of hypocrisy. What is worse is that sanitizing Metro Manila of its street children and habitués has appalled the world.
The mammoth and warm welcome given the Pope by millions upon millions of Filipinos wherever he went and passed could have been a source of great pride for the nation. A Vatican official commented that the holy mass celebrated in Luneta was by far the largest papal crowd in history. It was not just the size of the crowd, I hasten to add, but the orderliness and sincere joy exuded by everyone who went to see the Pope—the rain and cold notwithstanding—that could have invited the world’s admiration for the Filipino people. Yet, this one act of keeping away and hiding the street children marred all that.
This brings me to what has been troubling restorative justice practitioners and child’s rights advocates all this time. The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act exempts children aged 15 and below and minors above 15 but below 18, who did not act with discernment, from criminal responsibility. This means they will not be slapped with imprisonment for committing a criminal offense. Minors above 15 and below 18 who come in conflict with the law are supposed to be diverted to intervention programs that will rehabilitate and restore them. Yet, there are not enough youth centers they could be sent to for diversion.
The law, as amended on 3 October 2013, has mandated the establishment of “Bahay Pagasa” (House of Hope) in local government units. They are expected to provide intervention programs for children who come in conflict with the law. To date, however, there is but one accredited Bahay Pag Asa, Bahay Aruga in the National Capital region, located in Pasig City.
If the Aquino government seriously desires to leave a lasting legacy, it must re-think its CCT program. It must understand the complexity of the problems surrounding poverty and attack it from its roots. Cosmetic solutions such as dole outs and “treating” the homeless in resorts when there are visitors coming are a waste of money and a shameless exercise. What the poor need are livelihood programs and jobs that will feed them for a lifetime.
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