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Charity bathhouse becomes an oasis for Wanhua's homeless residents

02/10/2024 01:32 PM
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Taipei, Feb. 10 (CNA) When Taiwan's government imposed strict COVID-19 regulations in May 2021, few groups in society were as widely affected, or went as little noticed, as the country's homeless population.

Among other things, the restrictions led to the closure of the exercise centers and public sinks that many homeless people relied on to bathe, exposing a gap in the government's social welfare net.

In response to this situation, in early 2022 the Homeless Taiwan Association opened Pon Pon -- a four-stall bathhouse located in a quiet alley just steps from the hubbub of Guangzhou Street in Taipei's Wanhua District.

In addition to free bathing facilities, Pon Pon also provides its visitors with a place to charge their electronics, pick up donated food and other supplies, and access consulting and references for finding work, an apartment, or medical care.

Wanhua storefront

During a recent visit, Pon Pon shift manager A-Chiang (阿江) told CNA that while she had always imagined herself running an independent bookstore, rather than a free bathhouse, there were, in fact, similarities between the two.

In both cases, "you need a warm atmosphere if you want people to stick around," she said.

She recalled that when Pon Pon first opened, she used to go to the nearby Bangka Park to hand out flyers. Awareness of the bathhouse gradually spread by word of mouth, until the number of visitors grew to the current 80-85 people per day.

Pon Pon shift manager A-Chiang (right).
Pon Pon shift manager A-Chiang (right).

Since its opening, Pon Pon has operated according to several unwritten rules, including that visitors should not occupy bath stalls for more than 20 minutes.

To avoid possible "NIMBYism" from local residents, A-Chiang said, she is scrupulous about keeping the area outside the storefront clean, and will occasionally warn visitors in a loud voice not to litter, "just to let the neighbors see."

A 'soft bridge' into society

Nearly two years into the venture, A-Chiang said, Pon Pon has become both "a starting point and an intermediary" for Wanhua's homeless population.

"Lots of people focus on finding housing or jobs for homeless people, but those are things that can only be done after a person has had a shower," she explained.

After satisfying that basic need, Pon Pon also helps its visitors access social services and introduces them to people and opportunities in the area, thus providing them with a "soft bridge" back into society, A-Chiang said.

A haven for staff and visitors

One person who well understands the bathhouse's importance is Pon Pon's cleaner, Sister Yu-zhu (玉珠姊姊), who struggled with homelessness for over ten years before getting back on her feet and finding an apartment in Taipei's Shilin District.

Before starting at Pon Pon last September, she said, she experienced a string of unsuccessful job interviews, which often ended with a manager telling her, without explanation, that she was "not suitable" for the job.

That kind of experience -- likely related to her homeless status -- leaves a person feeling hopeless, and doubtful as to whether they'll ever find a way out of their situation, she said.

Weighted against such daily challenges, Pon Pon offers homeless people a tolerant and home-like atmosphere, Yu-chu said, adding that being part of something so positive had also brought her a sense of community and belonging.

Her sentiments were largely echoed by Pon Pon's visitors.

Mr. Yen (嚴), a regular bathhouse visitor in his late 50s, said that compared to places he had bathed in the past, Pon Pon had more spacious facilities and better opening hours for people who work during the day.

Aside from the bathhouse itself, "the staff here are all very young and friendly to us," he said, adding that in contrast to them, many other young people nowadays "don't have much empathy for the homeless."

(By Shen Pei-yao and Matthew Mazzetta)

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