OPINION

[Voice] How should Korea tackle homelessness?

By Korea Herald

With the number of rough sleepers on the rise ...How should Korea tackle homelessness?

  • Published : Dec 10, 2012 - 20:16
  • Updated : Dec 10, 2012 - 20:16
A man begs for money at a subway station in Seoul. (The Korea Herald)
For most, the arrival of Korea’s long, freezing winter is merely an inconvenience. But for the nation’s homeless population, the seasonal chill can be nothing short of life-threatening. Relatively rare prior to the 1997 IMF Financial Crisis, homelessness has grown steadily in recent years, according to government figures. The Ministry of Health and Welfare classified 4,921 people nationwide as homeless in 2012, up from 4,403 last year and 4,187 in 2010.

Many working to fight the problem say those figures underestimate the situation.

Seo Jong-gyun, a research fellow at the Korea Center for City and Environment Research, said that a survey carried about by his organization last year found twice as many rough sleepers as the government’s official tally of about 1,000, which excludes those sleeping in shelters or other accommodation. Determining the exact extent of the problem, he said, was a major obstacle to its resolution.

“There are many areas where people gather together, just like in front of Seoul Station or Yeongdeungpo Station,” said Seo. “In those areas people say the total number is decreasing a little bit. But we are not very sure about the total amount. Some people say there are… more remote places… where these people are.”

Perhaps more striking than the rise in numbers, health outcomes for the homeless population have deteriorated significantly in recent years.

New law

“Some support systems were established to protect their health (as well as) tentative housing since the early 2000s,” said Ju Young-su, a professor at Hallym University College of Medicine in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province.

“But the standardized mortality rate in 2009 was still 2.14 times higher than the general population’s.”

The 2009 figure was the third-biggest gap in the mortality rate between the homeless and general population of the decade, after 2002 and 2003.

A turning point may have been reached last year with the National Assembly’s passage of the nation’s first law addressing homelessness. The law came into effect in July.

“(The government) promised to survey homelessness nationally,” said Seo. “So that is another change. They will survey not just rough sleepers. They are going to survey more people, like those who live in very substandard housing.”

Public perceptions of the homeless veer between fear, pity and disgust. Citing inconvenience and harassment of customers, the Korea Railroad Corporation evicted hundreds of homeless from Seoul Station in August last year. But, according to Seo, those homeless people who cause a public nuisance are not representative of all of those living on the streets.

“People have some bad perceptions of homeless people: they don’t want to work, they drink a lot, they do something bad. That kind of image is made from the image of the main points like Seoul Station. In other areas, people (who) live there… do nothing harmful to other people, nothing bad.”

Ju echoed this sentiment.

“(The) majority of them are eager to work for proper wages in general, but opportunities are not given to them easily,” he said, adding that those sleeping at subway and train stations make up only 10-20 percent of the homeless population.

Woo Yeon-shik, who operates Dream City Homeless Center in Seoul, identified meager and difficult-to-qualify-for government assistance as one factor aggravating homelessness. Unlike in the U.S., he said, assistance is withheld if the applicant has family that live by themselves and are thus deemed wealthy.

Rehabilitation

“In Korea, if a man gets the allowance for being a registered poor person, he may receive $370 a month. However, it is too hard to get. He should not have family members living by themselves (to be eligible).”

Woo said that his center, which provides accommodation, meals, and laundry and medical services to the homeless, has three driving principles: Rehabilitation, maintenance and humanism.

Rehabilitation, however, is difficult, being possible only for perhaps “10-20 percent” of homeless people. This makes the second principle all the more important ― and economically worthwhile.

“If some people get hungry, they commit crimes or have medical problems,” said Woo. “It results in lots of expenses from crime for the society, from the police, judiciary, prison, healing for the victims or medical expenditures.

“To help the people to maintain a decent life, it costs much less money than neglecting their needs. I heard that it costs $24,000-28,000, much less than $54,000-58,000 when they neglect the needs of homeless people in the (United) States. Some NGOs say that just with 10 percent of that money, the homeless can be maintained.”

Naturally, resources are limited. At present, demand outstrips supply at shelters, according to Seo, especially in the winter, when homeless people normally reluctant to use shelters want to escape the cold. The situation is complicated by the fact that many homeless prefer life on the streets to the regimen of a shelter.

“We need more shelters at the moment but some people don’t like to go to the shelters because they don’t like to live in a room with eight other people, so they want to stay outside,” said Seo. “But in the winter the situation is very different from the other seasons.”

The reluctance of some to avail of the services available to them highlights one of the biggest challenges of working with the homeless: helping those who don’t want to help themselves. Seo acknowledged this obstacle, pressing the need to foster close relationships with those in need to break through the barriers they sometimes erect around themselves.

Respect

“I think we need an even stronger outreach service. They (those who work with the homeless) have to go there continuously and make some relationship with them,” he said.

Simply treating those less fortunate in our midst as equals would make a difference, according to Woo.

“The best step and first for tackling homelessness would be giving motivation. It would include respect.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com )


Readers’ voice

Dealing with homelessness …

Well, that’s an easy question to answer. First, recognize they are here and they probably aren’t going to disappear unless it’s from hunger or freezing to death in this blistering cold (thank God for my warm boots and winter coat). Don’t just think it but put thoughts into action. Don’t think the guy behind will do something so you don’t have to. What may seem a small gesture to you, may mean the world to the person.

Do what is within your capacity. No one is asking you to empty your bank account or walk outside trying to raise money (props to the people who do). Finally, don’t just turn your back. Imagine where we would be today had the world turned its back on Korea four decades ago.

It could be you and I lying on the concrete floor of Seoul Station and Euljiro. This goes for everyone including politicians, which brings me back to, “do what’s within your capacity.” This may be especially worth remembering for the next president of Korea!

― Jesper Hahne Severinsen, Seoul, via Facebook

Korea is reaching a point where the public is avoiding homeless people. In my opinion, I believe that Koreans need to create more government programs that directly communicate with the homeless.

The government also has to research the reasons why the number of homeless is increasing and create realistic programs to help the homeless. It also should be advertised, and specific companies should be given tax deductions (for a specific amount) for their donations to the homeless.

This could possibly include clothing manufacturers and retail outlets to provide free clothing to the homeless or restaurants and food manufacturing companies to donate food and time to help feed the homeless.

However, the Korean government should also create long-term programs to help those with mental illness that are on the streets and create a serious job program for those who are serious about getting back on their feet. The government could create a program in which those who are helped and are successful are obligated to donate back to the program after a specific number of months of success.

But the one thing that the government really needs to do for the homeless is to give them hope. There is no reason that the government and other organizations cannot help the homeless. Churches need to stop showing off and actually do something about helping. Other organizations like Mannam need to actually do something for these people, rather than spend all their money on their own Olympic games. Homelessness is a real problem and there are real solutions.

― Anthony Gilbert, Anyang, Gyeonggi Province

These days, whenever people gather in twos and threes, who will get the top job as the next president is the hot potato. Among several pledges is the housing problem. The solution to the housing problem must not tackle only the problem itself, as it is related to many present issues.

The demand for housing is forced into Gangnam, which is school district 8, and is far superior to the other districts in education infrastructure. The next president should deal with the homelessness in consideration with education.

― So Kyung-suu, Seoul

The budget deficit …

The prolonged economic slump, coupled with low fertility rate and widening wealth disparities, requires the government to build a more effective, wider safety net.

This means the nation might endure fiscal deficit for the time being, which can return to normal when the economy bounces back. Without expansionary fiscal expenditure, the vicious circle of reduced demand, foreign or domestic, keeping the economy stagnant, will be inevitable.

However, three editorials (in The Korea Herald) appear to make self-contradictory arguments. The Nov. 28 editorial entitled “Growth in deficit” argued the desirability of adhering to the principle of a balanced deficit, warning against allegedly populist welfare pledges ahead of the Dec. 19 presidential election.

Given that economic diagnoses and subsequent prescriptions vary in accordance with different strands in economic philosophy, it is possible to voice concerns over proposed increases in the welfare budget, though it is quite interesting that the American policy of a third round of quantitative easing, based on lessons from the dangers of a balanced budget during the late-1930s Great Depression, isn’t given due consideration in the article.

Anyway, another editorial the same day entitled “Help for the needy” was quite surprising for me. The article’s point was to encourage donations from the wealthy to underprivileged amid declining contributions in the fallout of a protracted economic recession, though it seemed to me that it acknowledged limitations of the encouragement in helping charities to be sufficiently funded.

The third editorial, published Dec. 3 and with the title “Gender wage gap” emphasized the necessity of the government providing high-quality, affordable child-care services as part of efforts to ensure gender equality in wages.

If the second and third editorial are put together to consider necessary action government plans to deal with the economic downturn, it is not hard to find incompatibility between calls for a balanced budget and assistance for social underdogs and women.

Is it possible for the government to help the disadvantaged stand back on their feet and offer better child-care services in economic hardship, without increased fiscal expenditure? I don’t think so. The tension between the seemingly self-contradictory calls should be addressed in favor of expanded fiscal spending for the time being.

― Kim Keon-yeong, Seoul