People receiving aid cards at St. Lucia's Cathedral
Parishioners of St. Lucia's Cathedral distributed food and medical aid cards to under-privileged people as part of a monthly assistance program aimed at alleviating what the Church sees as a widening rift between rich and poor in the capital. Recipients can redeem the aid cards for food, money, medical treatment and admission to the Vincent de Paul Center, an elderly care facility. Rajakulendran Antony Fernando, 65, vice president of the center, said the program is a way of giving back to those in need. "We have spent a major part of our lives in earning. Now, we work withthe poor and create an affectionate friendship with them," he said. In addition to the food and medical assistance, the center also provides educational assistance and clothing for children, as well as temporary housing and spiritual guidance. Church elders and aid workers say a rise in the number of poor or homeless in Colombo has become a cause for concern. Bernard Emmanuel Joseph, 91, a former president of the center, said he was worried that "though the city develops, the people become poorer and poorer." In its latest report on poverty indices, Sri Lanka's Department of Census and Statistics noted a 41 percent drop in poverty from 2006-2007 to 2009-2010. However, the department has no definitive data on the number of homeless in the capital. Father Tony Martyn, a parish priest at St. Lucia's and a patron of the elderly care center, says the situation on the ground appears far less hopeful. "The gap between poor and rich grows and spills onto the streets." Father Martyn added that many women and children have taken up residence in and around a rubbish dump only a few hundred yards from St. Lucia's. Some women have been abandoned by their husbands and try to make a living by collecting tin cans, plastic bottles and other recyclable materials, he said. Those in need come to St. Lucia's on Sundays to receive aid cards as well as counseling, while elderly people in need of food or health care are tended to in one of two facilities in the Vincent de Paul Center. The program at St. Lucia's, called "Sharing with the Poor," began 22 years ago and operates with assistance from the Don Bosco Youth Front, among other groups, which send out representatives into local neighborhoods to collect food and financial donations that are distributed by the center.