Down and Out(side)

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Down and Out(side)

For this wanderer, life means lunch, nighttime comics and cigarettes

By Joe Yong-hee

Staff Writer

"Look at this," Doh Hee-chang says. Taking off one black knit glove, he unzips his jacket and reaches into an inner pocket. "This is all the money I have." He displays three 1,000 won bills and some loose change.

Statistically, Mr. Doh, 34, does not exist. The Seoul Metropolitan Government says there are approximately 2,700 registered homeless people in the city who use government shelters; about 300 sleep in the subway. They're countable. Mr. Doh is not.

On this cold evening, Mr. Doh is standing by a row of phone booths at Jongno 3-ga subway station. He is a slight figure who drags his feet when he walks. He has a lazy eye and mumbles when he talks.

About three years ago, Mr. Doh says he was kicked out of his home. As he shuffles from the phones to wait for a train to Cheongnyangri, he changes his story and says he left on his own volition. "My dad and I don't get along," he says. "He doesn't give me any money."

It was an October day when, fed up, bored and jobless, Mr. Doh quietly went onto the streets. Two months later, he decided to visit his mother in the afternoon. When he stood up to leave, his mother asked him to stay.

"I didn't want to," Mr. Doh says. "My dad works all the time, but he doesn't give me any money." His parents, in their 60s, are still alive. "When I was younger, my dream was to get married, just like my two siblings," says Mr. Doh, the middle child.

When Mr. Doh has money, he sleeps at a comic book shop in Cheongnyangni. Walking out of the subway station, he's surrounded by people bundled in warm winter clothes. He's wearing a light, navy windbreaker and dark pants. Nearby, a street vendor sells nighttime snacks. She looks at him curiously as he shyly orders ddeokboki, spicy cooked rice cake, and mandu, or dumplings.

As he shuffles across the street, he lights up an 88 cigarette. He takes a few puffs, snuffs the cigarette out, then puts it in his jacket pocket. He has arrived at the 24-hour comic book shop.

On this night about a dozen other homeless men are already in the shop. Some, covered with blankets, sleep on reclining chairs. Others watch television. The evening shift manager recognizes Mr. Doh and calls him a good guy. "We don't stock X-rated comics," the manager says. "I don't allow suspicious characters. The people here, they're good people and I want to help them out. But you ought to check out Seoul Station - that's where you'll find some crazies."

Mr. Doh agrees. "I never sleep at Seoul Station," he says. "It's degrading." The underground pathway by Seoul Station is a well known haunt of the destitute. Other popular winter bedrooms, according to city officials, are the subway stations at Yeongdeungpo, City Hall, Euljiro 1-ga, 3-ga and 4-ga, Myeongdong and Hyehwa. Mr. Doh stumbled on the much warmer comic book store a year ago.

Mr. Doh spends the night here. At 7 the next morning the day manager starts mopping the floor and coughing, signaling that the homeless have to leave. By 8 a.m., their daily adventure begins: For Mr. Doh, breakfast and dinner are never assured, but he can usually count on buying lunch at the local Francis House charity.

He avoids the government-sponsored shelters, which provide free breakfast and dinner. He says he cannot afford them, though the shelters are free. Many homeless are skeptical about government aid, and some are afraid to seek help for fear they'll be recognized.

After wandering the streets until noon, Mr. Doh arrives at Francis House in northern Seoul and waits in line for a meal. He hands over 200 won, and silently wolfs down rice, soup and bean sprouts.

As he eats, a an elderly man stumbles into Francis House with alcohol on his breath. Someone else, a burly gent, says, "Some of these people have homes. That old man, he has three kids and grandchildren. You know why he's here? To save money."

When Mr. Doh finishes his meal, he walks outside and relights the 88 butt from his pocket. "I have to find a job," he says. "How did you get yours?" The last job he had was at a paper cup manufacturing plant. He was fired. That was six years ago.

He says he has never begged, then asks for 30,000 won. "I need new shoes," he says. He looks down at his black sneakers and says his feet hurt, due to a birth defect in his toes. About once a week, he receives money from a church charity, "just 10,000 won," he says. The rest of the afternoon is spent riding and sleeping on the subway.

Later that week, desperate for money, he goes to his younger sister, Doh I-suk. She hesitates, then gives him 5,000 won. "My dad told her not to give me any money," he says, then adds, "I know he wants me to come home, but why would I want to go home? It's more comfortable out here."

At Francis House, the lines run long, the stomachs wide, the spirits high

By Park Soo-mee

Staff Writer

"I'll take five more rice here please," the Reverend Alexander Garate shouts to a group of his volunteer chefs as more people stream into Francis House, a soup kitchen in Cheongnyangri. The elder priest is busy carrying food from the kitchen to the dining hall.

It's just past noon, but there is already a lengthy line outside. The Reverend Lee Tae-sung, the head priest of the organization, stands outside the door in an orange apron, admitting people who have paid their 200 won (15 cents) to eat. Often, the money collected is not enough for the charity to buy even a bag of rice, but Father Garate explains that the "admission fee" is needed. "It gives them a sense of purpose to eat," he says. "And dignity as well."

Located in Jegi-dong near Cheongnyangni, an area notorious for its rows of brothels and down-and-outers, Francis House, run by a Franciscan abbey, a Roman Catholic order, mostly serves food for the homeless. It used to lodge the homeless, but now does only in emergencies. The kitchen also gets a lot of elderly visitors and widowed men who cannot afford to buy a meal at a regular restaurant or make a lunch. A few visitors, who show up with weary faces, look as if they had just returned from a war as they release the two precious coins from their hands. As they sit in the wooden stools and wait for the food to arrive, many breathe heavily, near sighs of relief.

Perhaps hunger is the best sidedish, as the old Korean saying goes. The visitors who come to the charity empty their trays as they leave the shelter with a grateful smile.

"I've seen a guy who refilled his rice about eight times," says Sung Tae-kyung, a student volunteer who has been working for Francis House since last year. "It's quite obvious some of them only have one meal a day," another middle-aged woman volunteer says. "People who come here are very possessive over rice."

Back in the kitchen, where nine women volunteers from a local church group and one monk prepare food, two large cauldrons of rice have just been taken out of the oven and are being cooled on the table. The shelter prepares seven of these giant cauldrons every day, and by the late afternoon, they are almost empty. On the other side of the kitchen, a basket of chopped vegetables and diced pork is waiting to be cooked with a Chinese oyster sauce. Brother Gosaka Yosahiro from Japan, an experienced cook at Francis House, is getting ready to heat up a battered saucepan. "No sesame oil?" I ask. "That's coming much later," he responds brusquely. He is known as the most meticulous of the volunteers when it comes to checking the condition of the donated food that comes into the charity. When a man walks into the Francis House with his young daughter in hand, Brother Yosahiro quickly fills the pan with water to boil an egg for the little girl.

In the dining hall, a man who has just finished eating is causing a small stir at his table. "Even Jesus skinned his sheep and traded for money," he yells at Father Lee while thrusting the tray at one of the volunteers. "He's a damn merchant, you didn't know that, eh?"

Suddenly, the hall is quiet. Father Lee nods and says, "O.K., O.K." After the man leaves, Father Garate remarks that he has seen the man on the street nearby, reading people's palms.

By late afternoon, when the crowd thins, Lee Young-ja, a rice scooper and the eldest volunteer in the group, guesses she has served about 200 trays that day. Back in 1997, when Korean finances fell, Francis House had up to 400 visitors a day. Quietly, Ms. Lee says, "Things are getting better."

Food not like mom's, but still rates 3 stars

I am sitting in front of a bowl of rice the size of my head. When I walked into the Francis House and said I wanted to experience the same kind of meal prepared for the homeless, the giant bowl of rice is what the kitchen volunteers brought me. I've since learned that this is the Francis House staff's method of treating strangers. In a way, they're like my mother; she tells me that to give away only a single scoop of food is to hold back affection.

When I told Tae-kyung, a student volunteer at Francis House that I didn't want to pay the 2,000 won penalty for not being able to finish my meal, as a chalkboard in the dining hall indicated, she smiled and said, "Don't worry."

Francis House serves lunch five days a week. The meals vary, but all are homemade and Korean. For starters, I get seasoned bean sprouts, which were mostly beans, with only a few small sprouts. Next is a soybean stew with tofu and generous slices of turnips, which I find quite tasty. The soybean stew tastes sweeter and less tangy than the one my mother makes. The entree is a vegetable and pork stir-fry seasoned with oyster sauce. The meat seems a little uncooked, but I liked the bamboo shoots. For dessert, I have instant coffee that fits perfectly with a Korean meal.

Not gourmet dining, but a meal as good as cafeteria fare I've eaten. Maybe even better.

by Joe Yong-hee

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