Some call it paradise; others call it homeOne cold winter night three years ago, 68-year-old Kim Jeong-suk flopped down on a subway platform and started crying. Exhausted by her hand-to-mouth life, an only son having gambled away all her family’s money, she felt she could go no further.
She lived, as she still does, on money from selling earpicks. She had to use the same underwear as her daughter-in-law, with whom she shared a tiny room in the family home. Afraid that her daughter-in-law would run away, Ms. Kim decided to leave the house herself. But once nestled down on the subway platform, Ms. Kim found herself feeling hopeless.
Then came a savior, a stranger who saw her crying and guided her to a jjokbangchon, or “cell village,” in Yeongdeungpo south of the Han River, where she met people who were in similar circumstances.
Though she had to live in a jjokbang, a cubicle about 3.3 square meters (35 square feet) in size ― about the size of five phone booths ― Ms. Kim was happy. A church in the neighborhood gives out free food, and she at least has a roof.
“This is paradise to me,” Ms. Kim says, sitting in her cell on a recent weekday.
But Ms. Kim’s living conditions haven’t actually improved much. One of many such cubicles lined up inside a rundown building, her cell looks more like a henhouse. Located in a back alley in Yeongdeungpo, hidden behind the high-rise department stores, Ms. Kim’s paradise is a rather unpleasant sight, filled with buildings full of tiny cells that seem ready to collapse at any moment.
Smelling moldy and lit by dim fluorescent lighting, the cells mostly house homeless people. After three years here, however, Ms. Kim now has friends and neighbors, of which she did not have many before.
Built along the railroad tracks in the 1950s, as quarters for prostitutes who worked near the Yeongdeungpo train station, this “cell village” has become one of the few places in Seoul where homeless people might be able to afford to spend a night under a roof. Nightly rent here used to be 5,000 won ($4); it recently went up to 8,000 won, or 210,000 won per month. Two people usually share one cell, which requires them to sleep curled on their sides. Separate toilets and kitchens are out of the question.
By next April, however, Ms. Kim’s paradise is scheduled to come to an end.
The Yeongdeungpo district office is in the process of tearing down the cell villages as part of a city beautification plan. Trees are to be planted in their place. No exception will be made for Ms. Kim’s cell, no matter how persistently she says, “I have nowhere else to go but here. This is my home.”
The district government began razing the shacks last August; perhaps half of the dwellings have already been torn down, with trees already planted where some of them stood. At the site of one of the vacant lots, a giant banner is posted reading, “This construction is to plant tress so as to beautify the cityscape and to form a pleasant environment. We are doing our best to minimize the inconvenience.”
Looking anxious, Ms. Kim says, “Men are supposed to be more important than trees, aren’t they?”
Five minutes on foot from the crowded Yeongdeungpo subway station area is enough to reach the soon-to-be-destroyed jjokbangchon. After passing a giant, early department store Christmas tree, one reaches a small police stand at the entrance, built after a fight in which two homeless people were killed.
The cell village is far from being a safe zone. A man with an empty soju bottle runs up and grabs a stranger by the arm, saying, “Gimme 2,000 won or you shall not pass this place alive.” Someone else standing on a corner cries “Have a nice day” in English.
One man these people listen to is Im Myung-hee, 46, a minister at Gwangya Church in the neighborhood, who gives out food and used clothes.
When Mr. Im first volunteered to lend a hand here in 1987, a gangster in charge of the area told him, “If you happen to change one single man, I would call it a miracle.” From then on, that is what Mr. Im has been up to ― making miracles.
It was not easy for Mr. Kim to render aid to the homeless back in 1987. “When I first started to give my service, homeless guys used to attack the chapel, grab me by the throat and tell me to stop the noise or they would take my life then and there,” Mr. Im says.
With the help of other volunteers, Mr. Im manages a “cell consultation center” nearby, where he offers clothes and other daily necessities for free. The church pays the rent for some residents who have no income. Asked how he can manage all this, Mr. Kim smiles and says, “My Father is the richest man, for he is the God of all creatures.”
Instead of relying on information from the district office, Mr. Kim did his own legwork in the area to figure out how many homeless people are living in the cells, working out a detailed map. According to his research, there were once more than 800 cells in the area, but most of them were removed by the district government. The government offered to either find dislocated residents new apartments or give them 4.2 million won in compensation. Since it would cost extra money to move into a new apartment, most of them chose the money, which they squandered on gambling and drinking, according to Mr. Im.
In a chapel next to the church, which officially can accommodate 40 people, more than 60 homeless people sleep at night. Instead of standard church phrases praising God, Mr. Im has posted a banner that read, “Let’s form good habits.”
Watching the Steven Spielberg dinosaur film “The Lost World” last Wednesday afternoon, the people in the chapel looked relaxed. Some gathered around, smiling, revealing that most of their teeth were gone. The youngest, a 21-year-old man, has so few teeth that he can hardly chew his food. “Malnourishment over a long period makes you lose teeth, which is a way to tell whether the person has been homeless or not,” Mr. Im says. “What we need the most is dental treatment.”
The 21-year-old, who says he left home to escape an abusive father, has been under the minister’s guidance for about one year. “I’m going to study for high school,” he says in a shaky voice.
He is one of the luckier ones, simply because he is alive. The previous night, in the chapel, a 28-year-old man breathed his last. Lee Ye-ran, a volunteer, says with teary eyes, “When I helped him change his clothes last night, he looked okay.” Mr. Im says calmly, “This is an everyday event in this place.”
But Gwangya Church is located in an illegally built shack, which puts it on the list of dwellings to be removed by the government. Mr. Kim wants to build a five-story welfare center for the homeless in the area, but doesn’t know when this dream might come true.
Mr. Kim has met with district government officials, only to hear what he calls the same excuses. “They are forcing the cell removal despite the wintry season, simply because they need to spend this year’s budget to get another big one next year,” he says. “Planting young trees against the chilly winds cannot be a sound idea,” he says.
Lee Yeong-il, an official at the Yeongdeunpo District Office, says repeatedly that every single cell resident has taken his or her compensation and left the jjokbangchon, which is not true.
Mr. Im’s daily routine, rain or shine, includes going around and talking to the residents. At the sight of the minister, residents lighten up and greet him warmly.
For cell residents like Ms. Kim and her neighbors, Kim Sun-im and Na Sun-deok, both in their 70s, the minister was a final reed of hope. Ms. Na was brought here after trying to commit suicide three years ago.
“I felt so lonely after my husband died, suffering from severe financial difficulties,” Ms. Na says. “That’s why I wanted to kill myself. But now, I’m happy that I didn’t do it ― I feel so blessed to be living in this neighborhood.”
Kim Sun-im agrees, saying, “I never knew about this heavenly place before I came here about four years ago.” The four of them ― Ms. Na, Kim Sun-im, Kim Jeong-suk and the minister ― are crouched in Ms. Na’s cell, which she decorated with fake flowerpots and cabinets that she picked out of the garbage.
When they reach the topic of their cells being removed next spring, Kim Sun-im says, “Well, I guess I must die any time soon. What kind of good would there be if I go on living without my home sweet home?”
The minister says, “Let’s look at it this way: overcoming difficulty can bring fun to your lives.”
Kim Sun-im laughs this away. “Well, you are the angel from heaven to think like that. But we are just simple human beings, without homes.”
Choi Dong-gi, a volunteer, is on the side of the homeless. “After all those cells are gone, where should we take the homeless?” he asks. “Nobody seems to care.”
by Chun Su-jin