Beggars taken off the streets for Philippines papal visit

Beggars taken off the streets for Philippines papal visit

MANILA - The Philippines government came under fire Friday after admitting that hundreds of homeless people were taken off Manila's streets and put into luxury accommodation during Pope Francis's recent visit, when he preached compassion for the poor.

Members of parliament demanded an explanation after Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman revealed 490 beggars and homeless people were taken to air-conditioned log cabins at a resort near Manila for the Jan 15-19 visit.

"The pope would have wanted to see the Philippines, warts and all. Let us not pretend that we are a first-world country," House of Representatives member Terry Ridon, who is initiating a congressional inquiry, told AFP.

Soliman said the street people, many of whom live in shanties and hammocks tied to palm trees along the Manila Bay seafront, were removed from the capital's Roxas Boulevard before the visit.

A record crowd of six million flooded the bayside road on Sunday to hear Pope Francis celebrate mass in a nearby park, the highlight of his tour of the Catholic outpost where he preached "mercy and compassion" for the poor.

But the homeless were instead taken to plush accommodation at a hilltop resort south of Manila during the trip, before being deposited back on the streets hours after the pontiff's departure on Monday.

Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the left-wing group Bayan, criticised the decision, saying the government was "whitewashing poverty".

But Soliman said the homeless would have been "vulnerable to syndicates and discriminated (against) a lot" had they stayed in the area.

"You cannot hide poverty. When the pope landed, the first thing he saw was the shanties by the river," she told AFP.

She also said they had received training as part of a government scheme launched last year to provide 11,000 homeless families with rent-free accommodation for up to a year a year. So far the programme has helped 2,000.

"Part of the orientation is to familiarise themselves with a room with a door and toilets," Soliman said.

The Chateau Royale resort where the homeless people stayed offers swimming pools and rock-climbing facilities, and usually charges up to 24,000 pesos (S$727) for a room per night, according to its website.

Soliman said the government did not pay the full price, without providing details.

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