A bishop in Portugal has said that slums are a “stain” and a “disgrace” for the country.

– Shock after a COVID-19 outbreak in a shanty town in the diocese

Bishop of Setúbal José Ornelas was speaking to journalists May 31 on the first weekend of the resumption of public Masses in Portugal after their suspension March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the prelate was also speaking after Portuguese society was shocked by images coming out of the Jamaica neighbourhood in Seixal – in the district of Setúbal, in the greater Lisbon region – where police were forced to close eight bars and cafés after identifying a COVID-19 outbreak in the unfinished buildings in the suburb occupied largely by migrants from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Ornelas said that it was necessary to “transform the neighbourhood” and recalled that “decent housing is essential”, especially in the context of the coronavirus.

Asking people to observe social distancing and quarantine measures requires that they have the means “that are minimally necessary” and “adequate housing” to do so, he recalled.

“It is incomprehensible that there are so many people living in slums today in our country”, the bishop deplored.

– “It is not enough to welcome migrants – it is necessary to give them dignity”

Marvelling that COVID-19 had still extended itself “so little” in the Jamaica shanty town and other like ones around the country, the Bishop of Setúbal urged decent housing for all and insisted that workers must not be “squeezed” into their homes and jobs, just as likewise “dignity” must be guaranteed for all migrants in Portugal.

“It is not enough to welcome [migrants], to fit them in – it is necessary to give them dignity”, Ornelas stressed.

The prelate also lamented that one of the “great problems” of Portuguese society, particularly on the Setúbal Peninsula, is suitable housing for all, and though he pointed to “developing programmes” that he hoped would bring “results… with everyone’s collaboration”, he insisted that “decent shelter is fundamental” and that “we have to remove this stain” of undignified dwellings “from our midst, from society”.

– Hopes COVID-19 “will be a lesson” in the need for solidarity

Bishop Ornelas explained furthermore that one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that if society is not fair “it cannot be ecological, it cannot show solidarity”.

“Today’s society cannot afford to have poverty. Because the poverty will fall on our heads”, he warned.

Insisting once again on the need to transform neighbourhoods like Jamaica, the prelate said he hoped that the coronavirus outbreak in the slum “will be a lesson” in terms of the need “to build a more solidary, more just society”.

The responsibility for situations like that of the slums falls on everyone, not just on the authorities, the bishop continued, for which reason he warned that the problem would not be solved by “nationalising things” but by “putting everyone to fight for the same thing”.

– Portuguese Church fights for decent housing

The Portuguese Church has made the fight for decent housing one of its top priorities, with Church charity Caritas denouncing already in March this year, even before the worst of the coronavirus, that although “access to housing in Portugal is getting more and more difficult”, there is a lack of political will to solve the “very serious” crisis.

In March too, on a visit to the Quinta da Parvoíce settlement which was partially demolished by authorities, Bishop Ornelas personally raised the alarm that the economically vulnerable in Portuguese society are increasingly “unable to cope” with the rising cost of rent.

More on Novena from the Church in Portugal:

Caritas Portugal deplores “scourge” of country’s housing “emergency”, spread of social exclusion

Caritas Portugal denounces lack of political will to solve “very serious” housing crisis

Portuguese bishop Ornelas warns of “very serious” housing problem in country as Church accompanies demolition of illegal settlement

October 2019: Portuguese Church groups denounce plight of poor “living worse than animals”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.