For Gwangju’s poorest, the holidays are trying

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For Gwangju’s poorest, the holidays are trying

On Christmas Eve, there was nothing for the 6-year-old boy to do but stay inside with his sickly great-grandmother.

The child, surnamed Kim, and the elderly woman, 90, have lived this way for years now, in a 33-square-meter (335-square-foot) apartment in the city of Gwangju. The boy’s mother cut contact with the family long ago, while his father visits just once a year.

He left home when Kim was just barely 3 months old.

On that day, his great-grandmother, who suffers from a rare illness that has caused her left leg to swell to nearly twice the size of her right, simply stared off into the distance.

“I can’t go outside since my grandmother can’t walk well,” the boy said in response to a reporter’s question.

But the difficulty in the arrangement is not lost on her.

“I think the misfortune [that the boy’s father] endured has been passed down to my great-grandson, too,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

The boy and his great-grandmother are residents of Sangmu 2-dong in Gwangju, but their situation is not uncommon in this area.

The neighborhood stands in stark contrast to the city’s lavish downtown, which is densely packed with high-rise buildings. Sangmu District’s main street is located right across an eight-lane road from this shantytown.

It was the first area in Gwangju to build permanent rental apartments capable of accommodating 25,000 residents, but it is also one of the poorest.

Forty-seven percent of the households there receive national basic subsidies, and the elderly and disabled make ends meet with government support.

Since 2009, 50 residents have committed suicide, an average of 10 deaths per year.

In 2014, the suicide rate in Korea stood at 27.3, meaning that almost 27 Koreans in 100,000 took their own lives that year.

“Most of the residents are living healthy lives, but the suicide rate is especially high in the poor areas due to such hard economic conditions,” said Song Kyung-ae, the director of the social welfare division at Sangmu 2-dong’s community service center.

At a small pavilion in the park near the center, four middle-aged men and women sat drinking makgeolli (traditional Korean liquor). It was barely 1 p.m.

A man smoking a cigarette hurled expletives as he boasted of how he had bombarded a police officer and staff members at an alcohol detoxification hospital with insults and slurs.

“There are even heavy drinkers gathering in the morning,” said Moon Han-min, a guard at one of the apartments in the town. “Ambulances come often to transfer patients from these apartments.”

But while many people in the city were spending quality time with their loved ones on Christmas Eve, one 5-year-old girl was alone, waiting for her father to pick her up late one evening from the local child care center.

Her mother took her own life two years ago, following a long battle with depression, and her grandmother was recently moved into a senior care hospital as her dementia progressed.

Christmas Day wasn’t much different. Many of the neighborhood children were out playing games with their peers instead of at home with their families.

“My mom is living away and my dad is always busy,” said a 9-year-old girl playing at the park that day. “I don’t care anymore.”

In regard to the area, social welfare experts have pointed to the importance of relocating staff who can help increase the residents’ quality of life and draw their neighbors’ attention.

“The closest neighbors should keep an eye out for irregular situations and contact authorities [if necessary],” said Kim Kyung-shin, a family environment and welfare professor at Chonnam National University.

“Welfare personnel should be reallocated in line with the actual circumstances in the region, not simply based on data.”

BY KIM HO [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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