Have the homeless been forgotten?

By Cheng Wei-chun 鄭維鈞  / 

Thu, Jan 18, 2007 - Page 8

On Dec. 19 last year, two French brothers, Augustin and Jean-Baptiste Legrand, set up a tent city for the homeless along the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.

For three weeks, about 300 homeless people and more than 100 citizens and celebrities slept in the red tents to protest against the government's policies on homelessness.

The protest forced the French government to take action by providing housing for 27,100 homeless people. It also focused public opinion on the problem of homelessness, which has now become a key issue in this year's French presidential election -- now just three months away.

Taiwan is not short of homeless people. There are always long lines of people waiting for free boxed meals served daily by the Department of Social Welfare and social groups at the Taipei Railway Station and in Taipei's Wanhua District. Whole families can be found standing in line.

In general, there are two kinds of homeless people. The first are the economic homeless -- those who became homeless because they were unemployed or because their incomes couldn't cover their expenses.

The second kind of homeless are those who became homeless for non-economic reasons -- these include the elderly and the disabled who have no one to look after them.

Globalization is widening the gap between the rich and poor in this country even as Taiwan is becoming an aging society, in which low income households face a real threat of becoming homeless overnight.

Since these sudden and dramatic changes in society are not being addressed with new social programs, the nation's social services will soon be dealing with more senior citizens who live alone or who live on the streets.

In recent years, social service groups and charities have been able to do little but provide emergency services for the growing numbers of homeless.

Despite structural changes in society, progress in creating a more equitable society has been slow at best.

The French government, in contrast, has some relief measures in place. Each year Paris sends out buses for the homeless that are used to meet basic needs for food and shelter.

This year, slogans calling for a citizen's movement and social justice were heard across Taiwan as many middle class urban residents marched against what they saw as a corrupt presidency.

The media, however, turned Taipei's homeless into a target of derision for supposedly trying to cop free meals during the anti-President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) street demonstrations.

The reality, though, is that many of them became homeless because they were unfairly fired by their employers, injured on the job, or were the victims of poorly planned government policies, such as public recycling programs that have put scavengers out of work or crackdowns against unlicensed prostitution.

By treating the homeless as criminals who do nothing but vandalize parks and destroy public facilities in underground shopping markets, the government is not only refusing to deal with a deep-rooted social problem, but is also committing a grave injustice against some of society's most vulnerable members.

At the end of every year, several of the nation's larger cities hold year-end banquets for the homeless. Their bellies get filled and they receive warm clothes, but does anyone listen to them about their needs and problems?

Last year, South Africa held a Homeless World Cup in Cape Town attended by 48 nations. In the process of becoming members of representative soccer teams, many homeless people were able to change their lives and their social status.

In Japan, a mutual help association for the homeless has had a good deal of success in improving economic conditions for that nation's homeless.

Perhaps Taiwan's social movements and lower classes should make getting rid of the stigma of homelessness, organizing the homeless and fighting for the rights of the homeless their objectives for the future.

Cheng Wei-chun is a member of the Homeless People Workshop at the Graduate School for Social Transformation Studies at Shih Hsin University.

TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG AND MICHAEL FAHEY