HomeFeaturesFilipino authorities balk as church center opens doors for poor

Filipino authorities balk as church center opens doors for poor

Note: Photos taken before the declaration of “community quarantine” in Manila.

For years, Johny Suza, 48, drove a tricycle, also known as a “trike,” to make a living. Then he had a spat with the owner of the vehicle, who later reported him to the police.

Johny ran away from home and, for a year now, has been going from one homeless shelter to another in Manila. 

When authorities declared a lockdown of the city due to the spread of the new coronavirus disease, the shelters closed, kicked out the homeless, and Johny had nowhere to go.

“They just gave us more reason to contract the virus and spread it,” he said, adding that some of the disposed even have children with them. 

Johnny said the decision to close the shelter was not fair

“Maybe they thought that we were just street dwellers and that, maybe, the virus came from us,” Johny told LiCAS.news.

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For almost a week now, Johny and other homeless people have been sleeping on the street corners of Manila, jumping from “feeding center” to feeding center to sustain themselves.

On March 13, he found himself outside the St. Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center in Manila’s Tayuman district to line up for food and take a bath. 

A homeless person washes his hands before entering the Kalinga Center to avail of free meals. Every weekend, the center opens its doors to homeless people who can avail of a free bath and a simple meal while undergoing values formation and counselling. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

For almost five years now, Kalinga Center, a project of Society of Divine Word priest Flaviano Villanueva, has been offering the homeless meals, a place to shower, and clothing.

Father Flavie, as he is known in the community, said the program aims to give the poor the chance to find dignity and create their own self-worth.

The priest said the decision to leave the doors of the center open despite the lockdown was difficult.

He asked himself: “Should the center have a particular time or season?”

“Christ came in a very uncommon, unprecedented time, so with that I realized that Kalinga should have no season,” he told LiCAS.news.

Many of those who lined up outside the center were not aware of the ongoing pandemic. They were surprised why the “washing stations” were set up outside the center. 

“I know about the virus, but it’s confusing,” said Johny, adding that the poor, like him, have no access to information.

One measure recommended by authorities to contain the spread of the disease is “social distancing.”

Father Flavie, however, said it also “creates a conscious and even unconscious effort of cutting ties with the poor.”

 Father Flaviano “Flavie” Villanueva, SVD, says the Kalinga Center was born out of a desire to help the homeless. He said it follows the vision of recreating and empowering lives of the homeless and the wounded. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

“The equation doesn’t match, that if we close, we’ll feel better, but someone else will get sick. If we close and save ourselves, someone might even die because we just wanted to feel comfortable and safe,” he said. 

Those who entered the Kalinga Center are always reminded to keep things clean, especially during the health emergency. They are also provided medicine and water before leaving the center. 

When Father Flavie took the risk and opened the center, he was surprised by the support of people. Volunteers immediately came to help.

“I felt I wasn’t alone. If we create it, grace will sustain us,” he said.

Alex, 36, who has been a beneficiary of the center, came to volunteer.

“I want to distract myself from temptations,” he said, adding that he also wanted to make up for “the sins that I have done.”

Noel Feliciano, program director of the center, said he was at first hesitant, especially with the thought that he might contract the virus.

But he said Kalinga “is more than doing the right thing. It is a mission, especially now that those in the streets are more vulnerable.”

“I have my fears, but working here is part of my sacrifice now that it’s Lent,” said Noel.

Every weekend, the Kalinga Center opens its doors to the homeless, who can bathe and have a simple meal while undergoing values formation and counselling. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

Father Flavie’s initiative, however, was frowned upon by authorities.

In the morning of March 19, police and village officials dispersed about a hundred street dwellers who had lined up outside the priest’s center.

Authorities said the center violated the government’s quarantine regulations, especially on “social distancing.”

“We know the rules,” countered the priest.

He said people line up 1.5 meters apart and only up to 15 people were allowed inside the center at any given time.

“They wash their hands, have a quick bath, take their vitamins, take a meal package, a bottle of water, oranges, and a face mask, then they leave,” said Father Flavie.

He said there was “no mass gathering,” or the coming together of multiple people that is prohibited under the month-long quarantine.

The police, however, said they got a request for assistance from village officials who said social distancing rules were violated at the feeding initiative.

Father Flavie said the village chief has always been critical of the program for bringing “trash and “dirty people” to the community. 

“I just want them out. I don’t care about them. What I care about is my village,” said the village chief.

“I don’t know what is more painful, to see someone denied of food or to see someone in authority tell a homeless person to get out,” said Father Flavie.

 Father Flavie Villanueva calls on dioceses to create a center like Kalinga to help the poor. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

When people were asked to stay in their homes, Kalinga was one of the very few doors left open for those who do not have a home to stay in. 

“I didn’t know where [the street dwellers] went after,” said the priest.

He is worried that they are susceptible to the disease. 

“If they are not fed, all the more they feel weak, and there might even be the first case of a homeless dying,” he said.

“We have this crisis, a virus, but we could have virtues over virus, we have to show compassion. We have to be sources of hope instead of bringing hell to these people,” added the priest.

He later gathered the volunteers, most of whom are also street dwellers, to explain what happened.

“I realized that they, the poor, the homeless volunteers who have nothing, are more understanding, more giving, more virtuous,” said Father Flavie.

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