[Minority Voice] Shame Is Not a Policy for the Homeless
On Wednesday, I read a newspaper report on the death of a homeless man whose body was discovered in a pile of garbage beside a phone booth. What is shocking is that although he was dead in the street, scores of people passing by did not recognize it for days.
My eyes filled with tears when I saw hundreds of people lining up to get their meals and gobble them crouched in a corner when I first went to the Euljiro and the Seoul Station underground passage to investigate the health conditions of the homeless.
That was three years ago, but the scene is still fresh in my memory. At that time I thought to myself that a system that would at least enable the homeless to eat with dignity is needed, and also a medical office to which the homeless could go when they are sick.
Four years ago government and private organizations started making efforts to improve the welfare of the homeless, but the situation on the streets has not improved much.
Of course considerable numbers of homeless are admitted to all sorts of temporary protection centers in order to prevent them from sleeping outdoors, but they are in a very unstable situation, and may be turned back onto the streets at anytime.
It is a confirmed fact that homeless persons' dying in the streets is not a rare thing. What is the problem here? I would point out that government policies, which do not guarantee the rights of the homeless to live in the streets, are a principal factor.
In other words, it is hard to deny that the administration's policy on the homeless was implemented under the supposition that such people are contaminating germs, ruining the beauty of the city, and scoundrels who do not work for a living, thus justifying the priority of ridding the streets of them. Policies oriented in this direction are what leads to the deaths of homeless people in the streets.
The right to live on the streets means the provision of on-the-spot services. These can be achieved by establishing regular shelters where the homeless can stay for the night protected from rain and snow, and providing bathing and laundry facilities and a minimum level of medical service available at any time.
It is common knowledge that in the advanced countries more prosperous than Korea, the homeless are easily seen, but the citizens do not consider them as pariahs to be hidden away in shame. Advanced countries have long been very active in providing various field services to guarantee minimum welfare for the homeless.
The homeless will continue to die in the streets due to indifference if views do not change. There are concerns that the problems and prejudices of the officials in charge of drawing up and implementing policies for the homeless become more aggravated as time goes by － potentially making it ever more difficult to achieve a just solution for the homeless.
It is deplorable that local governments that have departments taking exclusive charge of the homeless, including Seoul Metropolis, conduct irrelevant measures, such as ignoring or excluding the opinions of specialists and private organizations. Modest acknowledgment of the role and limits of the public sector and a sincere show of respect toward the various private organizations that are devoted to social welfare are called for.
Also, citizens who are living day by day under the fear of lay-offs, due to recent domestic economic difficulties, should sympathize with the problems of the homeless as a sad situation that they, too, may someday fall into.
The writer is director of socio-medical research at Association of Physicians for Humanism.
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