Manila is not the “gates of hell” Dan Brown described in his latest novel “Inferno.” If anything, it is worse. Brown and observers like him see only the shell of poverty, the part of it that is visible from a car or from a walk on the edge of an urban poor area near their hotel. They don’t know the truly awful scenes in the heart of the slums and they don’t know the people. And most Filipinos have little more real knowledge of the slums than our foreign friends do.
Foreigners and most Filipinos lack an understanding of why the slums are here, how little is done to help the urban poor, and how much courage and self-sacrificing love exist in the slums. Cardinal Chito Tagle and Pope Francis have urged us to listen to one another as a precondition for understanding one another: To understand all is to forgive all.
Yes, in the slums there are pimps, men ready to kill for P500, drug lords, child prostitutes, parents who encourage their children to become prostitutes; there are drunks, lazy people, opportunists, violent husbands, vultures who prey on the weak, and all types of bad characters. There are, however, as I have experienced in my 43 years of work in the Tondo-Baseco slums, men and women, especially women, of near-heroic love and unselfishness.
I also believe there are embers of compassion in all our people, so that a gesture of concern by a decent government or an engaged Church, or a group of young people, can fan the embers into flame and into genuine concern for the very poor. Why worry about what Dan Brown or others say? We will be judged on what we do to help the poor who are there before us, as Jesus promised they always would be.
Let me give an example of what embers of compassion look like and how these can be fanned into life. We were driving on Aurora Boulevard in front of St. Joseph’s Church last week when we saw coming toward us, against the traffic, an older man, a scavenger, pushing a kariton that was piled high with the stuff he had gathered during the night. On top of everything was a cardboard box turned upside down, and balancing on the box were two small puppies. The box tilted this way and that and the puppies looked around for help. The man, who seemed to be in his sixties, was smiling at the dogs and reassuring them they were safe, and perhaps for a few hours at least he was smiling at life itself. After all, he had finished work and had earned his P150 or P200 for the night. He was on his way to the junk shop to sell his stuff and then he would head home for breakfast and bed with his puppies.
Then something remarkable happened: None of the drivers around us blew their horns at the man for coming against traffic and slowing them up in the rush hour. Ordinarily, these same drivers would be furious at a wrong-way driver. People have been shot for blocking traffic. Here no one was angry. They sympathized with the old man. Compassion was still alive.
Maybe the drivers liked the old man’s self-reliance and jaunty air in the face of poverty and old age. Maybe they liked his affection for the puppies. Whatever the reason, the drivers saw him as a good man in need of help. If there were a program for the old man, they would readily have signed on.
Let the old man stand as a symbol for the urban poor and the rural landless poor and the tribal people hustled out of their land by mining companies and others. The job of the government, the Church and ourselves, I believe, is to awaken the interest of all people in the poor of the country. Like the old man, most of the poor are decent, interesting people.
The poor need help. No one escapes poverty by himself or herself. Not Batman, Superman, or even the Irish superhero Finn McCool, who is so strong he can lift himself up by the scruff of his neck, can manage to get out of poverty unaided.
What might a program for the old scavengers and people like him be? We should note, first of all, that if he has a home, he is fortunate. There are hundreds of scavenger-families who sleep at night in or alongside their kariton. Let us talk about what can be done for them. At night they pull their wagons up on the sidewalk wherever they can and huddle together for the night, more like people in the Tabon Caves 50,000 years ago than residents of a modern city. They are liable to be beaten or robbed, or rousted by the police or by security guards, or well-off people who fear the presence of homeless people.
Suppose we set up camps around the city where the poor scavengers can come at night, where they will have water and be safe, where perhaps a medical person can examine the sick and the children can get a bite to eat, and maybe some tutoring. Can Ateneo de Manila University, Miriam College and the University of the Philippines open their parking lots at night to the kariton of the poor and homeless? The security guards are already in the schools to keep an eye on things. The homeless people will be safe and will leave in the early morning.
The schools can become homes of peace and compassion for the hundreds of young and old people who are literally homeless in the Cubao area.
What must be done?
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).