It’s Tuesday in Manila and it’s hot. The street is bustling. Over 150 people are gathered outside the church on the paving stones. Mass has just ended and the early evening traffic buzzes past as the congregation departs.
Some of that congregation are now preparing food. There must be 20 of them, some chopping, some cooking, some getting ready to serve.
And the people keep coming. All types of people – from kids to the elderly. The youngsters are running around, the parents looking on. Some sit on the steps of the church.
It falls quiet. The vehicles remain humming in the background. The priest begins the catechism. It lasts around 15 minutes. Then the food is served.
This is a simple initiative, really. Once a week, a group of committed volunteers, from the Congregation of the Mission’s San Vincente de Paul parish, take time out of their evening to offer food to the homeless of Manila.
To people like Mark and Analyn, who live on the streets. ‘We dream,’ says Analyn, ‘to have our own house, one that we can call our own.’
A dream that is very far away. On a good day, they raise enough money collecting garbage to rent a cab. If not, they are left to fend on the street.
They struggle to eat. ‘We rely on the feeding programme,’ she says. This is often the only decent hot meal they get all week. For the rest of the time, they rely on ‘pagpag’ – left-over food. Sometimes they get the leftovers from restaurants; sometimes from the garbage. ‘We are not ashamed,’ says Mark. ‘It is better to eat leftovers rather than food bought from stolen money.’
They are a couple of immense dignity. Analyn, whose poverty is marked by a gap where her front teeth should be, is determined her son (also named Mark) will not follow in their path. ‘We don’t want our son,’ she says, ‘to grow up on the streets.’ But he is, for now at least. A family trapped in poverty.
They eat leftovers and sleep on the streets so there’s enough money to send Mark to school. But sometimes there isn’t enough money. ‘He is studying,’ she says, ‘but sometimes he has to skip his class.’ Mark, only in second grade, begs for money. ‘So he can have school allowance the following day,’ his mother explains.
Mark and Analyn are not alone. Far from it. Manila has the largest homeless population of any city in the world. Across the Philippines, an estimated 1.2 million children are homeless – with 70,000 of those in Manila alone.
If the business goes well for Mark and Analyn, and they manage to sell the garbage they collect, they might earn $1 – between the three of them. If it’s raining, and the cardboard they collect goes soggy, they make nothing. And it’s a competitive business – thousands of Manila’s poor scour the streets for unwanted junk. The same streets in which they live.
The feeding programme at San Vincente de Paul parish will not, of course, solve all this. Nor will it solve the fact 44% of the Philippines’ urban poor live in slums. But it is something.
More than something, in fact. It provides a lifeline, a moment of comfort and community in an otherwise grueling existence.
It offers dignity too. The very fact these parishioners care is, perhaps, some solace in itself. It is not just the food – it is the message this carries. As St Vincent said, ‘compassion is that manifestation of love which enables us to enter into each other’s hearts’.
Pope Francis reinforced that when he visited the Philippines in 2015. His seminal Laudato Si’ is not just a reflection on climate change, but on how climate change has impacted most on the very poorest – like those in the Philippines, many still suffering from the legacy of Typhoon Haiyan. Francis laments the ‘indifference’ shown to this injustice. He exhorts us to do more for the poorest, and now.people of San Vincente de Paul parish are doing just that. And, remarkably amid all this poverty, they bring hope. ‘We don’t want our son to experience what we’ve experienced,’ says Analyn. ‘I want him to experience a beautiful life.’