“We want immediate withdrawal of the homeless facility!”
It was a sign posted in 2012 by residents of Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, when there was an attempt to build a homeless facility in the area. The homeless facility was not built due to the protests of the residents. As a result, many homeless people had to suffer from hunger and cold again. This phenomenon is called 'NIMBY', which is an opposition by residents to build things that might dishonor the area where they currently live. How can we solve the homeless problem when there is such strong opposition by the public and no government intervention? The following is a transcript of an interview with Kim Hyeon-il, representative of 'Baha Meal House', who voluntarily gives warm hospitality to homeless people, and speaks here about the realities of homelessness and the severity of the NIMBY phenomenon.
1. Who was the most impressive homeless person and why?
There is a man, whom homeless people in Cheongnyangni call 'big brother’. He served 28 years in jail because of severe alcohol and drug addiction. He used to live on the street for a while after he got out of jail, but he has overcome it now and is working as a team leader in Baha Meal House kitchen. I had followed him for seven years, trying to find out what deep 'depression' he had in his mind. One day I asked him what he wants to eat the most and he told me that he would like to eat the Korean style azalea pancake that his mother used to make for him before she passed away when he was in the 2nd grade of elementary school. As I listened to him, I felt that homeless people were in a kind of reality where they knew the meaning of the word 'love', but could not receive it. I remember crying under the bridge where he stayed, eating the azalea pancake together with him.
2. Were there any difficulties while managing ‘Baha Meal House’?
It was difficult due to discrimination against homeless people. So many people said things to me like, “You are doing such a good thing, but can you not do it here? Do it in another neighborhood." They hated to see 100 homeless people in a line in their neighborhood, when they thought about it. So we distributed the food under the bridge where there was a high school nearby. Rather than revealing that we are 'a restaurant for the homeless, we set up a cafe 'Cafe Brooks' and made food for them in the kitchen behind the cafe. I hope this kind of perspective will improve as soon as possible.
3. Would you like to say something to people who have negative thoughts on homeless persons – such as ‘homeless people are lazy’ or ‘homeless people are evil and break the social order’?
They should understand ‘why’ they became homeless. Anyone born in that situation would walk a similar path in life. Having a false sense of the homeless as ‘the lazy group’ is the biggest problem. If you are born in the average family and learn what ‘average’ means, you also have to know how it is to be ‘below the average’. Homeless people would change if there were only one person who could understand them. People have to correct their perspectives of drawing conclusions fragmentally out of some visible phenomena. I think it is most important to know why they had no choice but to become homeless.
4. Our society is giving donations and sharing to second-class citizens as showing off sometimes. What was the driving force to survive in this kind of situation?
There was an incident where a homeless person, who I really liked, had put my business card in his shoes and committed suicide by jumping into the Han River. I was so shocked that I wanted to close Baha Meal House. I was preparing food with the mindset that ‘It’s my last time distributing food to the homeless’. But then one homeless man just stayed still without his shoes on and did not come to receive the food. When I approached him, I could see his socks digging into flesh; he couldn’t take a shower for a month and just wandered around. These people, I thought, would be left in the same situation if there was no help from people like us. Also, I realized that ‘even ordinary person like me can help many people through this work.’ I thought it wasn’t my personal matter anymore, but the work of necessity in the world; and I was doing that work. With this thought in my mind, I’ve been operating Baha Meal House every day since then, without a break. I can feel that my wife and children are proud of me.
5. If you have any, what is the ‘policy for the homeless’ you want from the government?
It is very important to find invisible people. We have to pay close attention to every basic thing like how the homeless eat or how they spend their time of day. Research conducted by human rights organization, WTO, states that about 1.5% of the population in a city of 10 million people, are homeless. Seoul is a big city with a population over 10 million. However, the government announces that there are only 6,000~7,000 homeless people in Seoul station every time.
Do you know why this is happening? It’s because the government is taking advantage of the law. I’ve been a homeless person, too. If I wait at the employment placement agency at 3:30 in the morning, they give me a job. If you go there 4~5 days a month, you can hardly get a small one-room or ‘goshiwon’ (a very small room that is usually rented on a monthly base without a private bathroom, kitchen, or laundry) of 250,000 won. Then you won’t be classified as a homeless anymore since you got a house, right? What’s the point of having this kind of policy?
6. Is there a way to help the disadvantaged, even when people have no time to visit and serve themselves?
Take care of the people around you first. There’s a saying: ‘a pine with its bent back cares for one’s family burial grounds.’ It means it is very important to steadily keep being around a person. There is no need for many people to be around. Even if there’s only one person, staying around other people is important. You don’t know who scrapes a living around you. You should meet that person if you want to help, but most people don’t even try to come out and meet with others. We have 168 hours in a week. So, let’s make time twice a week to meet the disadvantaged around us. If you put time into this just twice a week, the life of people who have distrust and hatred towards the world will change. Receiving respect from one person could be a starting point in his or her new life.
7. Finally, would you like to say something to homeless people in South Korea who are given the cold shoulder and poor treatment from the society?
I want to tell them to respect themselves. Homeless people don’t enter the restaurant where they have to take their shoes off. Also, they don’t easily hold out their hands when someone offers a handshake. It’s because they know how bad they smell. They have low self-esteem. To win the confidence back, they have to change themselves. Pick up any garbage on the street, and don’t spit. Don’t get into a fight when drunk. In this way, you’re going to be welcomed, and if you feel welcomed, you’ll gain confidence.
There’s one more thing to say. I once exhibited works of the homeless at ‘Hug In’ exhibition at Hongik University Station. I always told them, ‘A person does not become an artist only when they produce a great creation. A person becomes a writer if they write, a painter if they draw a picture. Once you write or paint, you become an artist at that instant.’ In other words, being a homeless person is not a thing to be ashamed of, and you have to realize that you can always “not be” homeless. So please, don’t lower yourself too much. No matter what, you have to respect yourself.
As the representative has always told me, I think the homeless are people to be taken care of, not an object to be kicked out. Instead of blindly neglecting the homeless, we have to know why they are placed in such situations and try our best to give them help. They may be living harder than we are. We must remove the NIMBY attitude of ignoring the homeless and trying to kick them out. We should have PIMFY (Put In My Front Yard) mind of trying to help homeless people in any possible way. Why don’t we start trying to understand the situation of homeless people as of now?
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