Mr. Kim is a well-dressed man from Daegu who does not give the appearance that he is homeless. But he has been sleeping in a park near Seoul Station for seven years. With nothing but a sleeping bag and a small rucksack, he relies on a nearby church and homeless shelter for daily food and clothes. His story, he says, is no different from countless others.
The area surrounding Seoul Station where he lives is testament to Korea’s economic success. Its rags-to-riches story is apparent in the skyline, with Samsung, Lotte and IBK signs illuminating the city from 20 stories high. While these high-rise buildings proudly display the country’s world-renowned achievements, the people occupying the ground below tell a different tale.
After his business in Daegu went bankrupt, Kim decided to move to Seoul “for a better life.”
“I predicted that I would be homeless (when I decided to move to Seoul) because I had run out of money and I have a problem with my lower back,” he says. “I had pretty much given up my life. I came here knowing that there was more support for homeless people.”
Yet he had other reasons for leaving his hometown. “There are a lot of people who would recognize me in Daegu and I have a lot of friends there,” he says. “I don’t want people to recognize me. In Seoul, I don’t have any connections.”
Kim is just one of the people I met on a drizzly Sunday evening in early October through a volunteer group, PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect), which works with underprivileged kids, animals and homeless people each week. Tonight’s event, Feed Your Seoul, is headed by Brian Weilk and Moon Sun (Mia) Park, who, along with 10 other volunteers, buy, prepare and distribute food to homeless people in the area.
“Sometimes people die here,” says Mr. Kang, a social welfare consultant from the nearby homeless shelter Standing Back Up, who accompanies the volunteers. As we enter the subway station, he stops suddenly and gestures to an elderly woman sitting amid a pile of plastic bags, adjusting her socks, and continues, “You see that woman? She has a mental problem. She doesn’t know how she lives and what she does.”
Kang estimates that there are 300 people sleeping rough in the area each night, with numbers continuing to rise. Although it is extremely difficult to estimate what proportion of Korea’s population is homeless, statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare show that their numbers are increasing. The Chosun Ilbo reported that there were 4,187 people classified as homeless in 2010. That figure grew to 4,921 in 2012, an increase of 17.5 percent.
While Kang attributes mental illness and economic hardship as the main reasons people end up on the streets, he says that the destruction of the traditional family unit is causing more older men to become homeless.
“Children choose not to live with their parents, so it’s usually the two old parents living together,” he says. “If the man passes away first, the woman finds a way to survive because she knows how to cook and can take care of herself. When the woman passes away first, the man has no idea how to survive or live and the children donít want to take responsibility for them. So they come out and live here.”
Even if a homeless person dies on the street, Kang says, some families can be reluctant to claim the body. “Obviously they were not from a very well-off family, so money has a lot to do with them living this kind of life,” he says. “The families themselves don’t have a lot of money, so they can’t provide a funeral.”
As we move through the station, we enter a tunnel that is acting as a shelter for the night to no less than 30 men. Some have flattened cardboard boxes in the absence of a sleeping mat, while others use them as a windshield or as a way to give themselves some privacy – a concern that Kang says is very important. “Theywant to separate themselves from the pedestrians,” he says. “They know that they are at the bottom of the social chain, so they don’t want that attention.”
Conflict on the streets
As the cold weather begins to set in, more homeless people around the area will try to take refuge in a shelter, but space is limited and not everyone is guaranteed cover from the harsh winter.
When the snow begins to fall, Kang and other social workers patrol the area 24 hours a day to make sure everyone is warm. He believes that this can be a lifesaver, as some homeless people are reluctant to ask for assistance from a shelter.
“Their reason for not wanting to go could be due to a previous attempt that they have made to ask for what they need,” he says. “If (the shelter) doesn’t have the supply to give it to them then and there, they get easily discouraged.”
A self-described “good adapter,” Kim says he struggled when he first arrived in Seoul but found friends through a natural process of just seeing the same people every day.
While this is how he found his group, he says that “a homeless society works the same way as a normal society” and conflicts between groups do occur.
“People in my group don’t really drink that much. We just go to bed when it’s time,” Kim says. “But people from other groups … we just fight with them when they make a lot of noise and distract us. They drink and sing and make so much noise and it’s really disturbing.”
For homeless people, violence doesn’t just stem from group conflict. Mr. Lee, who found himself homeless after the auto-parts factory he worked for closed down, recalls an incident that used to happen “quite frequently” when he first became homeless. He was kidnapped. The group, he says, was a human-trafficking gang.
“I was sleeping on the street and woke up to find myself being kicked and punched in the face,” he says.
Luckily, the police investigating the area knew the place where he was taken and found him.
Help for the homeless
As we arrive back at Seoul Station, it becomes obvious how much PLUR’s work is appreciated. For over two years they have been distributing food – a sandwich, two cookies and soy milk – every Sunday, and it’s clear by how well they are received that their arrival is anticipated. This is a fact that Kang says they should be “very proud” of.
Park, who co-leads the group every week, says that what PLUR does is such a tiny fraction of what needs to be done. “Giving food is a very momentary solution to the problem,” she explains. “We can’t just give them a bag of food every time. They have to learn to do something so they have something to look forward to in their lives. They need a purpose to their existence.”
Kang has been working with Standing Back Up for four years and, while the shelter was not founded by the government, Seoul also funds job-training programs that give homeless people a way to reintegrate into society.
“The government plays a huge role because these private organizations are funded by Seoul city,” he says. “Without the financial support of the district governments, these organizations wouldn’t be able to help the homeless because it takes so much money to provide support.”
Kang says that while some homeless people have lost all hope, others are eager to find work and get their lives back on track, like Lee and Kim. However, it’s not an easy task.
Kim, a man that Kang describes as “diligent,” is only able to find some type of paid labor about once a month due to his lower back problems and the lack of jobs available. At 47, he admits that he is “uncertain” about his future.
Despite this, he smiles and laughs through our entire conversation.
“I’m pretty upset, but I can’t just frown because that would make other people unhappy,” he says. “I’mhappy and laughing on the outside, but on the inside I’m really upset. But then I think about other people and I want to make other people happy.”
If you see a homeless person you think is in need of help, call Standing Back Up at (02) 1600-9582.
Participants should join the Facebook page and RSVP as there are limited spaces available:www.facebook.com/groups/volunteerforplur.
Korea International Volunteers