Instead of a crackdown - which the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is intent on - what the homeless at Sanam Luang need is assistance, understanding and respect in order to return to a normal life
Writer: Story by PICHAYA SVASTI / Photos by CHANAT KATANYU
Published: 1/09/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook
Fifty-year-old Jakkalaen, a very skinny woman wearing dirty old clothes, has been living at Sanam Luang for almost 10 years.
The homeless live tough lives at Sanam Luang.
Before that, she had a home and family. But she went out of her mind and ran away from home to Sanam Luang after one of her children died. Like many homeless women at Sanam luang, she has became an alcoholic and used to sell her body in return for a glass of whisky.
Her story has been repeatedly told as a joke by cafe comedians. But, it is not considered funny by the Voluntary Activity Creation Association, or Issarachon, which has been assisting the homeless and sex workers at Sanam Luang for the past six years.
"Our volunteers will sit and chat [with the homeless], distribute condoms and listen to their complaints about this and that. The more they talk, the more we know about their problems, so we can better help them," said Nathee Sornwaree, chairman of Issarachon, which means free people.
The current crackdown attempt by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is part of the routine cat-and-mouse chase, he noted. This is the fourth crackdown in the past ten years. Everytime, he said, the homeless soon return to Sanam Luang again.
"The authorities have yet to learn that it is unconstitutional to punish the homeless like this," he said, adding that a bill is being drafted to assist the homeless. "What they need is help, not a crackdown," he said.
His group's attempt to help the homeless started in 1996 when a group of 5 or 6 volunteers who called themselves Issarachon began organising activities for homeless children. The work later grew to include other underprivileged groups such as slum dwellers. It became a foundation in 2005.
"We started our work in 2003, to assist people who stay at Sanam Luang," Nathee recalled. Now, we operate from a van-turned-mobile unit parked near Sanam Luang every Tuesday and Friday from 3 to 11pm. All are welcome to stop by for counselling, medicines, condoms, snacks, water and books to read.
Actually, many of these people have houses and families but have left them behind because of a host of life problems, he said.
Treated as the scum of society, they suffer health problems from their poor quality of life. Alcohol is their escape, a solution for being denied a social identity.
"To many, they are social trash and a burden. But they are actually helping society. Without them, there would be mountains of garbage at Sanam Luang. They help collect the rubbish and turn it into money.
"Many of them have become guinea pigs for vaccine testing programmes, mostly Aids vaccines," he added.
Family problems, especially about money and spouses, are the main reasons why they run away from home. The longer they stay at Sanam Luang, the harder it is for them to return home as most of them become alcoholics.
"They drink alcohol partly because they often have to sleep in the rain, having only a plastic sheet to cover themselves. Alcohol keeps them warm and they enjoy drinking with friends. It sounds like an excuse, but it's true," Nathee added.
Alcoholism, which can lead to heart disease and road accidents, is the major cause of death here. For six years, the group has witnessed the deaths of 30 to 50 people at Sanam Luang. They organised funerals for a few of them and sent the bodies of the rest back home.
According to Nathee, Issarachon's main goal is to help the homeless regain their rights to state welfare benefits as citizens. The group helps them to establish their identities and apply for new ID cards.
"Our primary mission is to bring back their civil rights. However, it is very difficult to convince them to go to a district office for new ID cards. A few BMA thesakit city police [inspectors] have been helping by acting as guarantors. But, these people lose their ID cards so often," he said.
After getting the new ID cards, the homeless will be asked about their future plans. Most of them want to become vendors, so Issarachon helps them to start their businesses by giving them some money or a food cart.
For the new homeless, Issarachon offers them moral support until they feel better and decide to return to their families.
From its mobile unit along Klong Lod canal, the Voluntary Activity Creation Association, or Issarachon, assists the homeless at Sanam Luang.
"If they want to go home, we give them a piggy bank for them to save money. Once their piggy bank is full, we ask them to them count the money. If they are ready to leave, we drive them home and tell them to keep the money as a present. Only a few people have made it, though," Nathee said.
According to him, some of the homeless change their mind and use the money to buy alcohol instead when they are only half-way there.
So far, nearly 20 people have returned home. Fifteen of them did it with the foundation's support. The rest did on their own. "All of them later told us on the phone not to worry about them," Nathee said.
"If they are not ready to go home yet, we help by giving them medicines or arranging medical treatment at nearby hospitals," he explained.
Trust is the key in the relationship. And it does not come by easily.
"It takes a long time for them to give us their real names; a year or two in some cases," said Achara Udomsilp, 22, a volunteer who is a Thammasat graduate. "It's not because they don't trust us. But, they want to forget their past."
A listening ear, she said, works wonders to win their trust. Many of them love talking about their children and their hopes for them. The volunteers often use this to ask them to reconsider going back home.
According to Achara, Issarachon, with 100 to 200 volunteers at work on rotation, helps about 50 of the 300 to 400 homeless people at Sanam Luang.
The group also assists sex workers at Sanam Luang. It is estimated that there are about 800 to 1,000 sex workers loitering around Sanam Luang around the clock. Their ages range from eight to eighty, said Achara.
"We start by giving them free condoms.When they feel comfortable to talk, we start telling them about birth control and safe sex," she said.
While preventing the HIV/Aids infection from rising, the group also helps to arrange free treatment for those with the infection.
"They helped send me to Siriraj Hospital when I felt sick. I've had the flu for three days. I usually come to the van for snacks," said Jakkalaen, whose real name is Sulai Madewa.
There are bruises on her legs and body. She fell silent when asked who attacked her. All Achara could do was to apply balm on the wounds while Nathee told her to tell him right away if she was abused again.
Despite her difficult life, Jakkalaen is among those who refuse to return home. "I have been begging," Jakkalaen said showing her two 20-baht bills. Then she put one of the banknotes into Issarachon's donation box.
"I'll keep the rest for booze. I can get more money."
She makes a donation almost every time she visits this mobile unit, said Nathee.
Shortly after Jakkalaen left, a homeless man named Jook, who has been staying at Sanam Luang for three decades, approached the van and greeted Nathee.
"Issarachon helped me apply for a new ID card. But, I've lost more than 20 ID cards so far. I also had a gold health care card, but lost it, too," he recalled.
According to him, he has a family and a house in Thon Buri, but prefers to stay here to drink and spend time with friends.
"I sleep at Sanam Luang on a plastic sheet. Sometimes, I can afford to rent a mat. In winter, it's not cold. When rain falls, we have to run and seek shelter in front of nearby buildings," Jook said about his living condition.
Sometimes he sells lottery result checkers or is hired to distribute leaflets or attend mobs. But, for four years, he has been doing another job which he said it is open to drug addicts, drunkards and the homeless only.
"I'm just back from taking medicines for money. I'm paid 70 baht a day. If I go there everyday, I get a weekly bonus of 350 baht. This anti-Aids drug trial programme has been in progress for more than four years," he said.
After Jook walked away, Jon Somjairao, a homeless woman-turned-vendor, approached the van.
"The Issarachon people help us with everything. When we are sick, they take care of us and give us medicines. They have told me about the use of condoms, birth control and basic medicines. Many people around here know them," Jon said.
This year, Issarachon is aiming to expand its programme to cover the homeless in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon. Unfortunately, the group is now faced with a decline in donations in the wake of the economic and political crisis. Before the September 19, 2006 coup, it received at least 10,000 baht each month. Since then, the amount has dropped a few hundred baht per month.
"However, money is not the biggest issue for us. We will continue our work," Nathee said, "Our goal is to maintain the spirit of volunteerism and pass it on to the younger generations."