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Down and Out in Taipei

'There you go, buddy,' says American Warren Sanchez, handing over a lunch box and bottle of water to a homeless person outside Taipei Main Railway Station, 'I can tell he's genuine, just smell him. He’s tried on every perfume in the store!' Sanchez knows every trick in the book, having lived on the streets of Los Angeles for ten years himself. He's now a resident of Okinawa where he runs a successful Cajun-style restaurant. He visits Taiwan several times a year to hand out food to the less fortunate. For many in Taiwan's conservative and family-oriented society, as for many of the homeless themselves, their predicament is viewed as a cause for shame and embarrassment. It is not uncommon to encounter homeless people who admit they haven't told even their siblings they are sleeping rough, for fear of the stigma attached.

Black government-issued duffle bags line the south side of Taipei's main train station as though attempting to hold back a flood. They do not contain sand, but the worldly belongings of the dozens of homeless people who have made this place their home. Despite strictly enforced rules demanding the homeless rise and pack their possessions at 5am and only empty their bags again at 9pm, plenty of rough sleepers, some in the 20s and 30s, are rolling around drunk on cheap rice wine throughout the day.

Officially, there are just 650 homeless people living on the streets of Taipei city. Mainly they congregate in around the main railway station, amongst the ornate pagodas of 228 Peace Park and, most obviously, in Bangka Park, famed for the tourist attraction of opulent Lungshan Temple and its nearby seedy red light district. Even a casual visitor, however, cannot fail to notice the sheer number of bodies lying across benches at bus stops and lingering in shop doorways all over the city, and begin to speculate the problem may be much worse than the official tally lets on.

For a start, many of Taipei's homeless people are too proud or stubbornly independent to register for a place in the various government and NGO shelters on offer, preferring to sleep outside, securing their positions against interlopers. Alcohol is a divisive issue. In Bangka Park, for instance, there are clearly defined areas occupied by those who drink and those who refuse to. Drug use, apparently, is far less common as Taiwan has very strict anti-narcotic laws and drugs are more expensive than a bottle of rice wine that will sell for less than a dollar and can be found on the shelves of local convenience stores.

The most vulnerable group are those aged 50-64. Job opportunities dwindle for anyone over 50 in this youth-obsessed society, but meagre government benefits to seniors only start from age 65. Mr. Kuo Ming-hong, at 56 years of age, has a long time to wait before any benefits make it his way. He used to work on building sites. Collecting his duffel bag of possessions in the evening, I follow him to his spot on the edge of Bangka Park, where he starts to carefully erect a shelter from cardboard sheets for the night. Nearby, 63 year-old Ms. Lee Sui-hui beds down in a sleeping bag for a long night, bathed in the parks brilliant fluorescent lighting. She was a housewife before a divorce, and the demands of coping with a drug-addicted son became too much for her to handle. Mr. Hsu Chong-chi is 64 and a gentle soul. He suffers from asthma and is hounded by debt collectors, even here in Bangka Park.

The three find comradeship and watch after for each other’s belongings during the day. It’s a life of sorts.
At a recent evening event held by the homeless support group 'Hidden Taipei', in their office a few blocks up from Bangka Park, former homeless Mr. Teng (67) recalls tales from his life on the street to a spell-bound group of affluent 20 and 30-somethings. He is fortunate enough to now make enough money selling copies of the Taiwan edition of The Big Issue to rent a small room, and no longer needs to sleep on the streets.
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