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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Homeless in Seoul

It was ten at night. Outside, the temperature had just dipped below zero. And inside, in Seoul station, it was time for action. Some of the homeless had already set up their beds, sheets of newspapers for some, flattened vegetable cartons for the more enterprising ones. A long enough vegetable carton box, still in shape, was as good as things could get over here. But for most, they were still waiting at their temporary resting places, waiting for the crowds to go back to their homes. The giant station with its maze of corridors could all be theirs then.
They were staying close to one another yet maintaining distance. Each one seemed to be on their own, yet part of a gang. They were all wearing many layers, all that they have assembled over their life time, looking thick, rounded and hooded, in sharp contrast to the sharp flawless winter suits of the extremely fashionable Korea that walked past them. These high-heeled people with homes were crisscrossing the station in the all too familiar frenzied style of Seoul, watching their path from the camera eye of their glitzy phones. The homeless and the ones with homes seemed in different worlds, unaware of each other’s existence.
The first man we encountered was in a state of stupor. He was perhaps in his fifties. He was badly drunk and could barely talk. He wore an Eskimo jacket and his numb lips struggled to contain the warm soya milk that we had given him. “I won’t be…. able to sleep tonight….. It is too cold here…..I will… just keep drooping all night. Later… I will move to the warmer section…. Still it’s so cold.” This has been the coldest winter in Korea for a decade and the number of homeless had taken a jump at the same time. There are supposed to be over 3000 homeless in Seoul, a growth of nearly 20% over last two years. Of these, over a thousand are estimated to be living in the streets instead of the shelters run by governments, churches and NGOs.
Another homeless man approached us. He scolded the other man, “Don’t drink so much! It will kill you one day. Stop behaving like a fool. Are you listening? I tell you every day. Stop all this drinking.” He looked at us, “That’s why they don’t like to stay in the shelter, they can’t drink there.” This man was in fine form, looking at the prime of his health, “I am out for a stroll now, will be back when this place is more beautiful,” said he as he walked away. Our hapless drunken man just kept nodding and thanking us and the other man for his advice.
Another person approached us to take a soya milk bottle. Word spread fast among the homeless. It was hard to say what gender he was. He had smooth bright skin and a few strands of long hair. Tiny earrings twinkled around his or her face. “It’s fun here. Everything is great.” He or she seemed to be in the best of spirits. 
Around a corner, an old woman with bright eyes shone at us. She was wearing a hat and a military jacket on top of a purple jacket which sat on top of a blue jacket. “They wanted to take me to the hospital. So I ran away. I don’t want to go to the hospital. I have no disease. I will get sick if I go there. And all those friends and neighbors would come to visit me. They would fall sick as well if they went to the hospital.” She couldn’t stop talking. It was as if she had discovered speech after a long time.
“It’s much nicer here. I own this entire Seoul station. There is no privacy at the shelters.” A small plastic bag was all her possession. When we asked her if she had blankets, she said, “I have things in this bag. Yesterday, a lady gave me new socks and tonight I feel very dry and cozy.” She showed us her socks. But her hands were shivering. They were bare. “Once these people go, I will move to that section. It is much warmer there. I just moved to this place today. I used to stay in another station before this. Now I own the entire station.” The entire point of their lives seemed to be to find a warmer place.
Her hands were shivering from the cold. “It’s getting better. It was so cold a few nights back.” We asked her how she had ended up there, “Some people stole my money. They said they would pay back but they never did.”
On the other side of the platform, along the rails that separated those who already had a train ticket from those who didn’t, about seven homeless had gathered. One man just lay on the floor without even a newspaper bed. He kept moving his arm every now and then. Next to him, there was a man in his sixties with one blind eye, “One day a stranger who was just passing by poked my eye with a broken bottle. I don’t know why he did that. But at least I can see with the other eye. Sometimes, things are violent here. Small fights. My money was once stolen.” He looked cheerful, “Come, let me show you the picture of my daughter,” he took out his phone. “Oh no, the battery is dead,”   I couldn’t help feeling sad for the man fiddling through his phone, going on pressing the buttons in vain. “I can only charge it tomorrow after lunch,” he looked at us with an apologetic face, “I have been here for seven years; a man borrowed money from me and never given back. I didn’t lose money from gambling and then run away from the family like many of the men here.”  We asked him how he sustained himself, “I go to the soup kitchen for every meal. I will charge my phone there tomorrow.” We moved on.
On the other side of the pillar against which the blind man was sitting, a woman sat next to two drunken men, all in their middle ages. One had a beard and his eyes were big, visibly drunk. The man at the centre asked for two soya milk bottles and began talking, “Tell me, is India rich or Korea? Does India have better roads? Then why are you giving this to me? Tell me, whose economy is stronger?” He went on harping on this topic. The woman didn’t seem to bother. The bearded man just kept nodding at us in acknowledgement. “Oh by the way, is it supposed to be one bottle for everyone? Then I asked for two, was I wrong? I am sorry. Thank you very much anyway.”
Further away from this group, another elderly woman was walking back and forth. She had a world of things with her, all covered with a blanket. She was only four feet something and was wearing three oversized jackets, two scarfs, and big workman’s boots. She was always smiling, or perhaps shivering. We had to repeat whatever we said to her a few times so she could understand. “I am the leader of these homeless people”, she said, "Actually, I live in New York, in Manhattan. But every year, I come here to be with my friends. I work in a store during the day.  This year I will not be able to go back to New York because these friends won’t let me go.” She didn’t seem to know a word of English. “I have pain in my legs. But I don’t want to go to the government run place. There is no freedom there.”
A young man, perhaps in his early twenties approached us. “Will you also give me a milk bottle, please?” His lips were thick and frothing. He was very thin, wearing an oversized jacket and a cap. He went away and came back after a while with a short middle aged man who walked with a bent back and had pointy ears. His senses seemed numb as well as he struggled to stand steady. “Give him one too, please . We don’t sleep here but just keep moving from one place to other all night. Thank you very much.” the young man said. It struck us that none of the homeless we met had lost their politeness.
The rest of the world was queuing up. The last train of the day had departed. There was a squeeze at the escalator. The bright lights of Seoul were dimming one by one to save energy. The homeless were being left alone in their kingdom.

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