Seeking heartfelt care for the homeless

Seeking heartfelt care for the homeless

Govt embarks on ambitious project to help the nation's vagrants

A homeless person in Bangkok. (Bangkok Post file photo)
A homeless person in Bangkok. (Bangkok Post file photo)

There are raft of reasons that make people homeless. Regardless of their backgrounds, these drifters have two things in common: They always carry their belongings and are always on the move.

Such a vagabond lifestyle makes it harder for the government and social workers to understand the causes of the problem and their real needs.

A lack of data has stopped the government from providing better help. Recently the government has taken steps to address this problem.

The Ministry of Human Security and Social Development (MHSSD) has now launched a project called "One Night Count," to find out the real homeless population in the country and try to address their problems and needs.

Scouring the streets

The project started early this year and the method is similar to field research.

About 500 volunteers are sent to scour the streets to document the homeless population. The counting will be conducted nationwide -- in Bangkok and 76 provinces.

The MHSSD cannot do it alone, so it is working with nine other agencies, both state and advocacy groups.

The first count started in April with 60 provinces in which 686 homeless people were documented.

The final counting started in mid-May in 17 provinces. MHSSD will announce the data from the "One Night Count" project this month.

"More and better data means homeless people will get better access to welfare and housing services," said Poranee Phuprasert, director of the Office of Vulnerable Populations under Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth), a state body promoting health welfare.

Thaihealth is one among nine agencies joining the project.

But in order to become part of "One Night Count," volunteers must undergo training to do the job properly.

"They have learned how to approach the homeless people to get them to talk, and how to ask sensitive questions without violating their rights and privacy," she said.

In Bangkok, 40 teams of volunteers were sent on 41 routes which were clearly marked to avoid overlapping.

The participating volunteers would document locations where homeless people stayed, the number of homeless people [if they live in a group or alone] and if they have physical challenges and mental issues.

Life on the street

The information from the tally and research shows that homeless people typically do not have ID cards which prevents them from accessing medical services or other welfare benefits.

Some homeless people also tell volunteers that they want to reunite with family members but do not know where to seek help.

Yet the data also offers hope, as many homeless people who show potential to return to normal life do so, if given the chance.

One example is Sor, a 57-year-old man from Surin, who has lived in a shelter near Hua Lamphong station on Rama IV Road for about a year.

Before living on the street, he worked and had a family. Yet his life changed after his 200,000 baht of retirement savings ran out. At that time, he was 55 and had a job in a construction company.

Yet he suffered severe medical consequences after a fall at a construction site which damaged his back. His wife asked for a divorce. Without any family or income, he decided to live on the street. Mr Sor told a volunteer that he never went hungry. There are always temples where monks offer food and drinks to those in need.

Sometimes, Sor went to the National Council on Social Welfare of Thailand near Victory Monument to get meals.

He is also offered odd jobs from time to time to support himself. At one time he was hired to collect amulets in Nakhon Pathom.

But not everything is good.

"I have to guard my belongings and beware of thieves. I lost my ID cards several times and the district office has grown tired of me," he said.

Addressing needs

One Night Count project is not the first tally. In 2015, there was an attempt to calculate the real number of homeless people.

The tally was conducted only in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen provinces, known as areas with the highest number of homeless people.

In that survey, more than 1,500 homeless people were documented.

About 28% did not have ID cards while 55% did not have access to state-sponsored fundamental healthcare. About 70% appeared to have mental health issues.

Nopphan Phromsri, secretary-general of the Human Settlement Foundation, said the number of homeless speaks volumes.

"If the number of homeless people is on the rise, it means more socio-economic inequality and it tells us that efforts to bridge gaps between the rich and the poor are not working. It also reflects the country's lack of mechanisms to help vulnerable people," she said.

Providing homes

The best way to end the problem is providing homes, said Napha Setthakorn, director general of the Social Development and Welfare Department, a state agency under the MHSSD.

"Being on the streets is just taking away their chances to get better life," she told the Bangkok Post.

MHSSD is working with Community Organisations Development Institute (Codi) in improving the quality of life for the homeless. Codi, is a respected public organisation working on assisting low-income earners to get access to housing.

The cooperation leads to the construction of state housing centres to provide shelters for homeless people. Two housing centres, one in Bangkok and other in Chiang Mai, were built and serve as shelters for the homeless.

Meanwhile, another housing project in Khon Kaen province is under construction while work on a homeless shelter in Pathum Thani will soon follow. The housing service is in line with a March 2016 cabinet resolution which aims to create housing and shelters for down-and-outs.

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