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Homeless baristas brew hope

Won, 59, makes more than 100 cups of coffee every day at a small take-out shop in Yeongdeungpo, southwestern Seoul.

For the fledgling barista, Cafe Espresso of My Life is not merely a workplace, but where he started over after years spent on the streets.

“I used to live in the darkness but now I feel like I’m waking a bit,” said Won, who declined to give his full name.

The cafe, established by the city government, is staffed by two homeless people who have been trained through Seoul’s self-support program. 
Won (left) and his coworker brew coffee at Cafe Espresso of My Life in Yeongdeungpo, southwestern Seoul.(Seoul Metropolitan Government)
Won (left) and his coworker brew coffee at Cafe Espresso of My Life in Yeongdeungpo, southwestern Seoul.(Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Staying in a public homeless shelter called the Home of Bohyeon, right next to the cafe, they had the opportunity to attend a three-month coffee brewing course and finally acquired certification.

Launched in late July, the cafe attracts some 200 customers on average a day. While baristas receive 500,000 won ($450) in monthly wages from Seoul, all profits earned from coffee sales also go into their pockets.

“The baristas were first concerned that customers might be reluctant to drop in just because they are homeless. As they communicate with customers, I can see that they are becoming more self-confident and sociable than before,” said Choi Yong-sun, a social welfare worker at the Home of Bohyeon.

Won, who nearly gave up on life after his company went bankrupt, is now hopeful of a better future.

“I want to get other certifications such as for coffee roasting and to be an international barista. And someday I want to see my family again. I haven’t seen them since I left home after my company ran out of business.”

The second outlet of Cafe Espresso of My Life is expected to open next year in Jongno, central Seoul, and the current baristas are potential managers for the new shop.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government runs various self-support programs for the down-and-outer.

In cooperation with the public railway KORAIL, the city picks dozens of homeless who have the strong will to stand on their own feet, and offers six-month jobs of cleaning or moving luggage at Seoul Station. During the term, wage and a residence are provided by the city, and some with good performance are hired as regular porters.

The KORAIL job program has run twice so far and the third term is currently underway.

A two-week hotelier course, which started last year, also trained 20 homeless people and helped a majority of them gain jobs as regular workers in major hotels. While some of them quit due to maladjustment, nine are still employed.

A photography class called the Frame of Hope has also assisted homeless people to start a new life.

Thanks to renowned photographer Jo Se-hyun’s talent donation, about 30 people completed the six-week course in May and two of them are working as a “photographer of hope” at a public photo studio in Gwanghwamun Square in the city center. Taking and printing pictures for foreign tourists, they earn 1 million won a month with additional incentives depending on how many pictures they print.

A new term for the photography class will start in late August.

“We try to help the homeless become independent and help themselves. The city government will provide them with full support to find careers in diverse fields,” said Seoul’s health and welfare chief Kim Kyung-ho.

By Lee Hyun-jeong (
Korea Herald Youtube