Homeless find hope in acting classIn a small theater in Daehangno, Seoul, on Monday, 12 people were performing a play. Titled, “I Want To Fall In Love Once Again,” the drama consisted of three episodes based on different themes: love, happiness and dreams. The acting, although enthusiastic, was noticeably unrefined and clumsy.
But when one learns that all the actors are amateurs who have been learning to act for less than six months at a homeless shelter, the level of performance is both understandable and admirable.
The Jinggeomdari (Stepping Stones) troupe is formed of homeless people, most of whom now stay at the Korean Support Center for the Homeless in Yongsan district, which is operated by the Anglican Church of Korea. They belong to the center’s drama group, a program started by the Korea Drama Therapy Institute in December 2005. While learning acting, they decided they wanted to perform in public. The Korea Arts & Culture Education Service, the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, the support center and the drama therapy institute jointly sponsored the production.
The first episode, on love, is about two factory workers who fall in love and marry despite objections from their parents. The second section, on happiness, tells of being ripped off by friends and leaving home but in the end reuniting with family, and the third episode, on dreams, is about waking up from a dream of becoming a film director. The script was written in a way that it contains elements of the actors’ own experiences and reflects times in their own lives.
Lee Jae-young, 43, has been staying in the homeless center less than a year. He has a bachelor’s degree, and worked for Hanbo Iron & Steel for 12 years, but the company was hit hard by the financial crisis of 1997 and 1998 and he took voluntary retirement in December 2002. Mr. Lee started several businesses including an adult game arcade, but all went bankrupt and he lost most of his retirement benefits. Now he takes part in cleaning organized by the homeless center for a minimal wage. He left home and put his house up for sale. His wife and triplet daughters are staying with his wife’s parents.
“I haven’t seen them for quite a while,” Mr. Lee said. “Some part of me wants to see them,” he said, but he would stay away from them, “until I can support myself financially and regain my dignity.” Mr. Lee said his family does not know that he is staying in a homeless shelter.
“My wife has been calling me to come, but I won’t go,” he said.
Mr. Lee said he wants to start anew and leave the shelter, but if he fails, he will have to return to the center. Asked about his plans for Christmas and New Year’s Day, he said, “I plan to see my family once and dine together.”
Like Mr. Lee, many of the shelter’s residents are separated from their families and friends or have lost touch with them out of shame at being homeless. They suffer from low self-esteem and feel humiliation and embarrassment at their situation.
Jeong Yu-cheol, 37, has been homeless since 1999 after losing his job, and previously lived in a homeless center in Yeongdeungpo district. “After the company I worked for went bankrupt, I could not find any work. I was concerned about how my parents felt about me being unemployed and doing nothing at home,” Mr. Jeong said. “My father had such a short temper and shouted at me to go out and find a job.”
Having a two-year college degree in electronics, he managed to find work in computer assembly shops and small manufacturing companies, but the companies either went bankrupt or paid him very little.
He said he took part in the play partly to overcome his shyness. Recently his father had a cerebral hemorrhage and he has been tending him almost around the clock. Mr. Jeong said he has no special plans for Christmas except staying at the hospital. Mr. Lee and other residents of the center also plan to visit his father, Mr. Lee said.
According to Kim Hae-su, the head of the Korean Support Center for the Homeless, the most common reason for people becoming homeless is loss of job (45 percent), followed by disintegration of family.
“Going out of business often leads to the break-up of the family and husbands leave their houses to their wives as compensation,” Mr. Kim said, explaining how many people end up in homeless shelters.
Oh Cheol-hui, 49, used to own an automotive parts factory, but his company went bankrupt in 2002. The family fell apart, and his wife and children live on Jeju island.
“My wife has been telling me to come, but I am too guilty to go there,” Mr. Oh said. His wife now owns a cosmetics discount shop on Jeju. In May, he found work at the shelter doing laundry. With the money he earns, he was able to find a small room on a monthly rental.
Before going to the shelter, Mr. Oh stayed in the Yongsan train station for a year. Sometimes he found temporary work at construction sites and was able to stay in a 24-hour sauna.
Mr. Oh said he has not seen his family since 2004. “When I went to Jeju island, my family and I went to a meat restaurant,” he said. He said he does not intend to reunite with his family until he starts anew. He will not spend Christmas with his family. “It is too expensive to go to Jeju island. It costs 200,000 won [$210],” he said.
The number of homeless people estimated to live in Seoul peaked at 4,800 during the financial crisis, gradually declined to 2,600, and fluctuates between 2,800 and 3,300 depending on the season. These days, credit delinquency is a major reason for people becoming homeless, Mr. Kim said.
Currently, 220 people stay at the Korean Support Center for the Homeless. Mr. Kim said most of them are constantly in and out of the shelter.
“They do not want to stay in the center,” Mr. Kim said. “When they find work, they leave the center and rent a tiny room in a gosiwon [intended for use by students preparing for their bar exam but often used by homeless people] or jjokbang [rooms referred to as honeycomb because of their small size],” he said.
Less than 10 percent of the residents stay in the center for more than 20 days a month, he said.
“They often wander from jjokbang to the streets and then from the streets to jjokbang,” he said. From January through October, more than 3,000 people used the facility. Ninety-six percent of them were men.
The only woman in the play, Kim Hye-bok, 47, said, “I live in a room on a monthly rent basis, but I was sick and I spent all my money.”
She was married for six months to a black American man. She has not talked to her family for two years.
“When I show up as a homeless woman, I wonder how welcoming they would be,” Ms. Kim said. She lost all of her friends too, she said.
“One time I tried to pay for dinner after my friend and I dined together. Then my friend was disgruntled and said, ‘How can you pay? You are a homeless person.’ I was very upset, but I shut my mouth. I didn’t want to pick a fight,” Ms. Kim said.
According to Mr. Kim, most homeless people have low education levels, few skills and are too old to start anew. A center survey indicated the average age of its users is 46, while that of those staying on the streets is slightly higher, at 50. Many suffer from diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, hepatitis B, syphilis and tuberculosis, as well as drinking problems.
The support center has slightly changed its focus to boost the morale of homeless people rather than concentrating only on referring them to job training programs. Since last year, the center has been operating the Saint Francis “University for the Homeless,” teaching philosophy, literature, writing, history and humanities.
The drama therapy group was also formed to boost the residents’ courage and help them stand proudly again, and it seems to have been effective.
“It helps them with what is most basic. It gives them confidence to begin a new life in society and swim against the tide,” Mr. Kim said. “Many homeless people are frustrated and suffer from low self-esteem at being homeless.”
Explaining how participating in the play helped him regain some confidence and self-esteem, Mr. Lee said, “I feel comfortable. I saw people who are in worse situations than I was, and I learned that I am not alone. It gave me courage and spirit. I feel like I can do anything.”
by Limb Jae-un