Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Why are the homeless now treated like lepers?

By Ku Er-teh 顧爾德

The Jen Chi Hospital in Taipei's Wanhua District has been put under quarantine due to SARS. As the hospital was frequently visited by homeless people, the media have since devoted extensive coverage to how the homeless disregard hygiene and drift everywhere.

At this crucial moment, the Genesis Foundation suddenly closed its station serving the homeless in the Wanhua District. The foundation, which has long provided services for the homeless, said that the station will remain closed to avoid cross-infection until the epidemic is over. They also added that they will distribute food in a nearby parking lot.

In the media, we then saw Taipei social workers running around in the streets looking everywhere for homeless people so that they could take their temperatures. The result was that the public began to fear these drifters who wander everywhere. SARS phobia has turned the homeless into modern-day witches.

Why did the foundation close its station? If we try to empathize with the workers at the station by looking at the matter from their point of view, we can understand that they didn't have sufficient ability -- both in material and psychological terms -- to handle SARS. From that point of view, closing the station was the best way to protect themselves.

But building trust with homeless people and developing their willingness to accept aid on a fixed schedule at a certain spot is a very difficult matter.

Surely closing a place with which the homeless are already familiar and which they trust makes it even more difficult for public health personnel and social workers to ascertain the whereabouts of these homeless people? How many homeless people will go from a place with which they are already familiar to an unfamiliar vacant lot by the river?

The foundation's decision is understandable, but not acceptable. They indeed do not have the capability to run the station at this time. But we can't support their pre-emptive declaration of defeat in our hour of need, and particularly in the hour of need of the homeless.

Would a hospital begin treating patients in a nearby parking lot because of SARS? The public believes medical personnel have a professional responsibility not to refuse treatment to dangerous patients. Can a particularly exalted independent social charity pre-emptively retreat in the face of danger? Doesn't this undermine the trust that the homeless and the rest of society have slowly built up in this mechanism?

Like medical personnel, they must have sufficient resources -- knowledge, equipment, and psychological preparedness -- to take care of patients with highly infectious diseases.

At this critical moment, assistance with these resources should be provided by the public health and medical systems as well as the overall social security network. Why can't Taipei City's social work and public health resources be shared with the foundation and other charity groups to take advantage of the networks and stations they have already established to aid the homeless?

Charitable work requires expertise and resources. In part, these are accumulated by the agencies themselves, but they also require the provision of aid by public agencies. In the current storm over SARS, many individuals or groups want to do something to help others, but they don't have the ability to do anything concrete and effective.

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