Two questions to ask Bangkok's street people: |Why are you here? Is this where you want to stay?
The sight of an obviously homeless person on a city street naturally evokes feelings of sympathy, but often you might also get the sense that person is exactly where he wants to be. Maybe you're right to feel that way too - but not in most cases.
A meek and scruffy man sits on the lawn of Sanam Luang with the proud and polished Temple of the Emerald Buddha a stark contrast in the background. In his tatters and beard he looks dauntingly crazy, but turns out to be quite friendly.
He remembers growing up playing basketball in Phetchaburi. Then his parents died and left him Bt80,000, and he came to Bangkok in search of something - but he's long since forgotten what it was.
On his first night in the capital he got drunk and someone stole all that money.
The man on the lawn resells bits of things he finds in the trash and is trying to save up enough money to get back to Phetchaburi. His immediate responsibility is "guarding" a woman who's stretched out nearby, sleeping off a boozy night.
Somyot Phurayong, who patrols the area for the city, came by on a motorcycle and assigned him the task. Somyot's thankless job is clearing the royal ground's footpaths of homeless loiterers, especially first thing in the morning and at noon.
His superiors wouldn't appreciate the scene at the moment. The homeless have reclaimed newly refurbished Sanam Luang.
Phetcharat, a former boxer who's lived in a tent near Khlong Lod for 10 years, is paid in meals to serve as watchman for shop owners. He has no money at all and says "disgrace" prevents him from returning to his home province.
"Granny" Panchana is snoozing under a tree, but soon she'll wake up and splice more rope to sell at Khlong Lod Market.
This is how Kasem Chantawong spent 40 years of his life. He came to Bangkok from Ratchaburi looking for his brother but couldn't find him, so he ended up wandering around, earning money as a garbage scavenger and attending merit-making ceremonies as far away as Ayutthaya to cadge the free give-aways.
"But I never begged," he wants to stress. "All those years I wanted to return home, but I never had any money." In any event, he'd lost track of his seven siblings. Only recently did the welfare-minded Issarachon Foundation track down his aunt's daughter. She was willing to take him in.
"Homeless people don't 'love their freedom' as much as the general public believes," says foundation secretary general Natee Soravaree. "They're usually ready to go home and settle into a new life if we can help."
Natee also recently helped a 60-year-old woman return home to Buri Ram. She'd left when she was 17, deserted by her husband, who was also her brother. She had a baby and then took off, finding work in Bangkok as a prostitute.
Natee spent a year gaining her trust. Once he has someone's trust, he can ascertain their identity and verify their story. He's often given fake names, either in deliberate lies born of fear or in delirium born of stress. He's seen many homeless people die as "John Doe" or "Jane Doe", impossible to identify.
But in five years the foundation has helped about 300 people find new lives. Getting them a new ID card is like reinstating their existence.
The patience that Natee musters to slowly win the confidence of the people he's trying to help is sometimes rewarded, sometimes not. He's been cruelly kicked. He's also been helped in turn, as when an old man guarded his camera equipment when Natee unexpectedly nodded off on the grass himself.
"Those who don't want to return home refuse to share any information with us," he says. "They think that if society doesn't regard them as human, they might as well be ghosts, surrendering everything.
"But many homeless people dream of returning to their original homes, just to regain some dignity, if they only had Bt5,000 or Bt10,000."
On more than a few occasions the destitute homeless turn out to have come from wealthy families. "What happened that drove them away? Do they love freedom that much? No!" Natee insists. "Our mission is to find out what pushed them out. You can't just assume they love 'freedom' and then ignore the real problems they're facing."
A recent foundation survey found the number of street people increasing steadily in Bangkok, 110 more last year than there were in 2010. Last year they counted 2,561 people, of whom 1,630 were male.
Every day Kasem roamed about Sanam Luang clutching a bag of clothes, his sole possession. He spent the days under shade trees. In the evenings he was allowed to sit in front of food shops, but the occasional handouts didn't fill his stomach. He washed when he could.
After the government's Welfare and Social Development Department initiated assistance for street nomads five years ago, Kasem was persuaded to accept shelter at the Mitrmaitree Home. "They asked me nicely to come here," he says, still a little amazed. "Before, all they wanted to do was arrest me!"
His relative was tracked down and he was issued a new ID card. Kasem was glad to reunite with his remaining family - the cousin and her husband - but within three days he decided he was too much of a burden for them. Their income wasn't much. So he returned to the Mitrmaitree Home, where he helps with the cleaning and gardening.
The facility is only for people under 75, however, so Kasem is going to have to leave soon. In the meantime, though, his cousin has built a small house for him and he'll have an elderly allowance deposited in the bank. He thinks he can also get a job as a supervisor at a local mushroom farm.
"I never paid attention to the funny looks I got from passers-by - if they wanted to stare, so what?" he says of the street life. "But all the time I dreamed that one day, when I had some money, I'd build my own home."
That dream has been fulfilled, in a roundabout way, and Natee hopes that more understanding and help is coming for others like Kasem, the homeless folks whose numbers will only continue growing without it.