Manila's homeless go hungry amid Christmas feasting

Poverty and hunger continue to rise despite government promises
Manila's homeless go hungry amid Christmas feasting

A homeless woman enjoys a hot bowl of porridge from a church feeding program for the poor, days before Christmas. (Photo by George Moya)

The disparity between the rich and poor in the Philippines becomes amplified during Christmas, a season widely celebrated with much fervor and feasting in this predominantly Catholic country. 

"Merry Christmas," uttered a homeless woman as she extended her hand to beg in a street corner in Manila's Chinatown.

The poverty incidence among Filipinos is more than 25 percent. The Philippine government has vowed to bring it down to 18 percent by 2016.

The woman pleaded for money to buy food. She had two little boys with her, presumably her children. 

The woman and the two children were just a stone's throw away from the Parish of Santa Cruz where indigents usually line up for the church's daily feeding program.

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"We don't have enough to feed everyone," said Michael Inocencio, a village official who helps his wife administer the feeding program for the parish.

Michael said they usually run out of bread and can only feed up to 300 people daily.


Affluence in the midst of poverty

On Christmas Eve, most Filipino families gather for the noche buena, a tradition of feasting that started in the 1500s when the Philippines was a Spanish colony.

For the poor street dwellers, however, there will be no noche buena feast. None of the many volunteer-run feeding programs in Manila offer noche buena to the hungry.

In another district of Manila, the feeding program at the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian Recoletos has been suspended until the end of the year. 

Father Antonio Zabala, the basilica's pastor, said the program will resume on Jan. 8. "We already handed out food packs to the indigents last Friday," he said.

The San Sebastian church has been running its feeding program for over 20 years already. Some 300 street dwellers have become the church's regular clients.

The Porridge of St. Joseph program in Quiapo district is also not operating on Christmas.

Freddie Frillarte, who used to work as a hotel food and beverage manager in the United States, said his 11-year old service will resume after the holidays. 

The Porridge of St. Joseph offers food to poor people three times every Friday. Regulars line up for the porridge and bread roll that are served in pink plastic bowls. 


Hunger in the Philippines

The incidence of hunger in the country has worsened in recent months.

A survey done in September this year showed that hunger incidence in the Philippines has worsened to 15.7 percent or an estimated 3.5 million families experiencing "involuntary hunger" at least once in the past three months from 12.7 percent or 2.8 million families in June.

About 14.1 percent of the respondents in the survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations said they experienced "moderate hunger" (hungry only once or a few times), up by 3.3-percentage points from the 10.8 percent recorded in June.

Some 1.6 percent said they suffered "severe hunger" (often or always hungry).

The government has vowed to address poverty and hunger. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government continues to implement social intervention or poverty alleviation programs.

Police officers offer food to street children in Manila's Quaipo district. (Photo by George Moya)


Spirit of sharing

"Let us eat and eat while there is food," said a street dweller as he gulped his bowl of steaming porridge. "Let's eat," he invited a passerby.

It's customary for Filipinos to offer food to visitors, or even strangers, even if they don't have enough for themselves.

This spirit of sharing is also the reason behind the feeding program of Maj. John Kawi Guiagui, the police commander of Quiapo district.

He has been feeding street dwellers since he assumed his post in August. 

Police officers under Guiagui's command become cooks and waiters. The police precinct looks like a stockroom with sacks of rice piled in the corner.

There will be a noche buena feast although the police officer said he plans to hold a Christmas party for street children and the homeless elderly on Christmas Eve.

Father Zabala said the feeding program of various groups have also become a venue for the "spiritual nourishment" of the poor. 

Unfortunately, Manila's poor street dwellers have to make do with prayers this Christmas.

"We don't have anything for noche buena," said Abigail Briones, a 27-year old single mother of four.

In the past five years, Abigail and her children go to nearby Quiapo Catholic church every Friday for the church's feeding program.

This Friday, Christmas Day, however, Abigail will have nothing to eat. "I hope somebody will offer us something for Christmas," she said.

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