Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Calling Taipei's streets home

Taipei has few homeless compared to many major cities, but they're out there and are under the care of government and private organizations

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Many see Taipei as a metropolis where opportunity and prosperity go hand-in-hand. But beneath the facade of glitzy shopping malls, multiplex cinemas and bright neon billboards, there lays a side of the city that those with jobs, cash to burn and a roof over their heads are all too often unaware of.

For people like 54-year-old Chao (趙), the city's streets aren't paved with gold. They are instead places of opportunity. Street-side garbage cans provide food, parks and underpasses offer shelter and swanky store windows act like television screens, offering views of a prosperous world that they cannot enjoy or be a part of.

Originally from Shulin, Taipei County, Chao lost his home and his job after a traffic accident left him partially paralyzed in his right leg. His sole possessions at present are a pair of canvas sneakers, a pair of polyester pants, a casual lightweight shirt and a woolen cardigan.

Since his arrival in Taipei four years ago, Chao has lived in parks, slept under expressways and called doorways of disused and rundown buildings home.

"I came to Taipei to look for work, but look at me. I'm an old man with a limp, which in most people's eyes means that I'm a cripple who's too old to work," said Chao.

"I have no home and no family. I have no choice but to live on the streets."

According to the Taipei City Government's most recent survey, there are between 500 and 600 homeless people in Taipei, and nationally, there are an estimated 3,000 homeless people. Both sets of figures are only estimates and are based solely on the numbers of those who register with one of the religious charities who feed and clothe the homeless or those who have come forward when the city government has undertaken one of its surveys.

"The numbers are never really accurate. They rely on those who come forward and not all want to come forward and admit to anyone that they are homeless, as they consider their situation shameful and are embarrassed about it," said Nick Kan (甘燿嘉) of the Chinese Christian Evangelistic Association (中華基督教福音協會).

Most of Taipei's homeless range from 40 to 60 years old, and 80 percent of them, like Chao, live, or have lived in the districts of Wanhua, Chungcheng, Datong and Chungshan.

With the mercury dropping to all-time lows, the most poplar place to sleep at present is the Taipei Train Station's underground car park.

From late evening until early morning sections of the car park are transformed into makeshift dorms. Sleeping bags are spread on top of cardboard, large boxes are used to create private enclaves and what few possessions the homeless who choose to live in the subterranean parking space have are kept very close at hand.

Although Chao hasn't been on the street as long as some of those who turn up at Taipei Train Station on Wednesday and Thursday evenings to receive a free lunchbox from the Taiwan chapter of the Salvation Army (救世軍), his story is not much different from any number of the homeless people who are forced to live off the charity of others in the city.

"The faces are different, but the stories are the same," said Salvation Army's Peter Lee (李德峰). "They have no family or friends, or have come from broken or dysfunctional homes and came here looking for work. It's certainly not their fault they are forced to live on the streets."

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