FEATURE/Fighting homelessness: Destigmatization, job support, volunteer care
By Tzeng Yi-ning, Shen Pei-yao, Chen Chieh-ling and James Lo, CNA staff reporters and writer
Homelessness has been stigmatized for decades, thought of as only affecting people who are down on their luck or suffering from unidentified disabilities.
Movies such as A Street Cat Named Bob, The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Soloist tried to dispel some of those stereotypes by shedding light on the myriad of reasons people choose or are forced to live in the streets.
But those lessons have yet to gain widespread understanding or acceptance, and people experiencing homelessness are still seen by some as lacking motivation, being lazy, or simply looking for a handout.
Chen Yen-chang (陳彥璋), a social worker with The Salvation Army in Taiwan, rejects those biases as they relate to Taiwan's homeless population, which is estimated at around 3,000 people, about 0.013 percent of the country's population.
That pales in comparison to the United States, where 0.19 percent of the population are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Though the relatively low number in Taiwan means that the problem can be easily overlooked, Chen said people experiencing homelessness come from all walks of life, and their predicaments are real, often triggered by financial difficulties that result in other issues.
One example he cited was a family of five that was highly educated, even holding post-graduate degrees from abroad, yet ended up stuck on the street as a result of untreated emotional and psychological trauma.
The family, consisting of parents in their 70s and three children in their 40s, once ran a successful textile factory, but fell on hard times when the domestic textile sector collapsed, Chen said.
With their property and company foreclosed and debts piling up, the mother and her three children suffered mental and emotional distress, and they sought shelter around Taipei Main Station, where a large number of homeless people gather as a community.
The family's plight is typical of the terrible cycle people who end up homeless face, Chen said.
Unable to dig themselves out of circumstances beyond their control, they fall into a downward spiral that leads to psychological issues, whether losing self-confidence and self-esteem or finding escape in alcohol, which only makes getting help even harder, Chen said.
While some in Taiwan's homeless community cannot secure their own living due to physical or mental disabilities, most of them actually seek out work, according to Chen Ying-jie (陳盈婕), Work Team project manager at Taiwan's social enterprise Do You a Flavor.
That work, however, is usually concentrated in menial jobs most people avoid because of personal limitations and social circumstances, as has been the case with a 72-year-old homeless man who wished to be identified as Ah Hung (阿宏).
He wakes up early in the morning for his gig with Do You a Flavor, often after getting only about four hours of shut-eye following his late shift in another job.
On the day he was interviewed by CNA, Ah Hung's early gig with Do You a Flavor was to clean out the residence of a deceased hoarder.
The 72-year-old had to do a lot of heavy lifting in a dwelling filled with the carcases of dogs who died from starvation after the passing of their owner and other waste stockpiled by the elderly lady who had lived there.
Asked why he puts himself through two labor-intensive jobs, Ah Hung said it was due to financial considerations and his age.
The Do You a Flavor gig pays cash and was the only way he could guarantee he had money on hand, he said.
"Although I do get a salary for my night shift," he said, "I get cash here (cleaning job), and nothing gets automatically deducted for my debts or insurance like I would if money was wired into the bank."
Also, given his age, Ah Hung said he thought it imperative that he "milk" the opportunity for as long as he was allowed to.
Chen Ying-jie said delegating such jobs to homeless people willing to take them on not only gives them a semblance of financial stability but also helps the hoarders as their living situation is a hazard to themselves and the communities in which they live.
As to why older members of the homeless community continue to take on physically demanding responsibilities even after reaching the age at which they can claim social subsidies, Do You a Flavor said such individuals simply do not want to be looked down upon.
For many individuals experiencing homelessness, however, a good work ethic may do little to change the instability that often plagues them, Chen Ying-jie observed.
That's because homeless individuals are often in need of flexibility in their daily lives to deal with issues such as locating a place to live, or handling medical emergencies or legal responsibilities.
"Many of them are unable to think ahead," said the Do You a Flavor manager, "and are often only able to focus their attention to day-to-day problems."
Relate, care and destigmatize
The interplay between financial issues and social circumstances in perpetuating homelessness may require solutions that go beyond employment or monetary support.
To Chen Yen-chang, a good place to start would be destigmatization.
"It is not that the homeless don't want to work," Chen Yen-chang said. "It is that they can't get work" due to the stigmas associated with their situations.
Destigmatization is also critical to changing the status quo and providing more help to the homeless, he said, because without proper understanding of the psychology behind homelessness, the general public will continue to oppose welfare programs for this group of people.
That is especially true, he said, if people still see members of the homeless community as "able" and not eligible for benefits based on traditional norms.
Prescription: a little compassion
While some, like Chen Yen-chang, work to erase negative stereotypes through their community work, people such as doctors Fu Yi-kai (傅奕愷) and Huang Sheng-yang (黃聖揚) get "physical" with those who are homeless to show that they are not pariahs who warrant ostracization.
The doctors are a part of the Charitable Service Association's street doctors initiative, which enlists volunteer medical professionals like Fu and Huang to take to the streets and provide the homeless population with basic medical care.
For more than a year, the two doctors have appeared in the Taipei Main Station area with small carts filled with medical supplies.
The doctors take to the streets around the station for approximately three hours on their days off to provide basic medical assistance to around 10 to 20 homeless individuals in the area.
According to Fu, there are no guidelines in the medical profession on "street medicine," leaving doctors to face the challenge on their own.
So why do medical professionals and volunteers continue to make "house calls" outside?
"We're not out there to replace medical facilities," Huang said. "Every time we go, it's to establish trust."
The problem, Huang said, is that homeless people generally avoid going to medical institutions for a host of reasons.
Some cannot deal with the hurt caused to their self-esteem when medical staff complain about their hygiene, while others simply lack the ability to describe their conditions.
There are also those, such as an older gentleman identified only as Grandpa Lu (呂), who lack medical awareness or who reach the point where they are numb to getting care for potentially serious issues.
Fu told CNA that at one point Lu had worn an old face mask for so long that one of the straps cut through one of his ears.
Although the wound was clearly infected, volunteers and social workers were unable to convince Lu to seek treatment, which led them to call on Fu to care for Lu on site.
The wound eventually healed, and the rapport and trust paid off, Fu told CNA, as Lu became so comfortable with the team that he has sought out its help on other occasions, including one that may have saved his life.
The many elastic bands Lu habitually wore around his wrist led to severe bleeding, and though Lu may not have known his condition was serious, he still sought out the medical team out of habit, who took him to a nearby emergency room.
"At least we can let them know that when they are really in need, there will be someone there to help," Fu said.
"Many people say that they (the homeless) are physically able but don't go out and find work," the founder of Charitable Service Association reflected to CNA during an interview.
"But could it be that they are actually physically unable to keep up with the capitalist society that we live in today?"
The association's low profile founder, who prefers to remain unnamed, said that at the very least, his group's goal is to help the homeless stay healthy so that they have a chance to shape their lives in the way they intended.
"We should live our lives the way we want," Charitable Service Association's founder said. "We are all human. And if we take away our differences, we are all the same."
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