[FORUM]Help for the homeless

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[FORUM]Help for the homeless

As the cold wind penetrates my tightened collar on the way to and from work, I feel much colder whenever I see the homeless at the Seoul Station subway stop. I always encounter a similar scene: some sleep crouched, others sit with their heads between their knees, and still others sit drinking together.
Recent government statistics put the number of homeless people nationwide at about 4,200. Among these, about 900 people sleep in the subways and the remainder live in temporary shelters.
According to the government’s analysis, the homeless, who first attracted attention as a social problem when the nation was hit by the foreign exchange crisis in 1997, reached a peak in February 1999 at more than 6,300, and since then the number has been decreasing each year.
Upon closer examination, however, the number stopped declining this year and instead began to increase. This means that despite the growing number of homeless people due to the economic recession, government programs for protection and self-support have been lagging.
The economic situation nowadays is even more dire, and it is the grassroots people who are driven to colder corners. Household debts have reached the highest level in history at 439 trillion won ($370 billion). This amounts to 29 million won per household. Credit defaulters total 3.6 million. Jobs for those under age 30 have reportedly declined by 40,000 each year.
Recently, there was a newspaper article about a young unemployed man who became homeless. He was 25 years old. Graduating from a two-year college, he learned Japanese cooking at a vocational school and worked at a Japanese restaurant until a month ago. Suddenly fired one day, he tried to find a job, in vain.
At first he stayed at a motel, and when he ran out of money, he became homeless. The young man said, “I never dreamed of becoming homeless, but one day I found myself becoming [a homeless person] myself.” I wonder how this “novice” homeless man will be able to endure the cold winter and if he can ever find a job.
Once a person starts living on the streets, it is hard to escape that state. Because more than 60 percent of the homeless suffer from mental illness or other social problems, such as alcoholism, it takes at least three years to overcome the side effects of three months of homeless life. This makes early rehabilitation for the homeless all the more important.
As the end of the year draws near, the “temperature tower of love,” which indicates the rising amount of money people donated to charity like a thermometer, is set up at the Seoul City Hall plaza, and the Salvation Army bells are ringing in the streets. They appeal to us to take more interest in those who are less fortunate or neglected. In this cold weather, homeless people are very close to us.

by Han Cheon-soo

The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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