By Joon Kim
Chang Yunhsiang（張雲翔）, 32, was abused by his father as a child. “He once tied me onto a door,” he says, with brief stutters and deep pauses. Forced to submit below his father’s orders all the time, Chang then developed a longstanding fear of his family. His life, which already had been worse, soon deteriorated until he became frequently suicidal.
“I wanted to give up,” says Chang.
One day, his father told him to convert to Buddhism. Without further ado, Chang refused to do so, and immediately took off from his house without any belongings. He was 17 years old. He doesn’t regret making this choice; however, his life would endure pains with twists and turns before settling with a job.
Ten years ago, Chang, by chance, met a director of an organization, who said to him to not give up his life.
He did not. He is living today, though still homeless.
He is one of countless few who have survived to tell his or her story after the early 2000s, when homelessness was a very undervalued topic to the Taiwanese public.
From 2007 until today, Working Poor Unite（當代漂泊協會）, a nonprofit organization based in Taipei, has been persistent in trying to provide a national spotlight to recognize homelessness as an alarming issue. Taiwan’s government counted about 500 to 600 homeless individuals across the country in 2016, but scholars consider this number to be at least five to six times greater than official statistics.
This year, WPU collaborated with other major human rights associations in Wanhua to establish a small arts exhibition on the homeless. Titled “Homeless and Sleepless（愛睏）,” this exhibition consists of a two-story picaresque diorama, filled with real-life objects, cardboard drawings, models, and photographs — some which were taken by Chang — that has compelled visitors about the anxieties and qualms deeply entrusted by today’s homeless.
Take a shortcut around a left corner of Bopiliao Historic Block（剝皮寮歷史街區）, an old business complex that used to be one of Taiwan’s most flourishing economic sectors in the 1920s, and you would find an antique wall of bricks and stones. The exhibition, which was convened in late June this year, will close this Sunday, in the 22nd of July.
Dr. Tai Yuhui（戴瑜慧）, an assistant professor at National Chiao Tung University（國立交通大學） in Hsinchu, taught at one of WPU’s earliest workshops in its “first class” of 2008. Quite a lot of people, including some of the homeless and a few volunteers, came up, she says, with considerable success. “We encouraged them to take their own video news,” says Dr. Tai. However, since the video camera was more expensive, they turn to photography, which is more affordable for those people in the bottom.
“The environment of the homeless is complicated,” says Dr. Tai. “It’s a jungle.” Once a person secures a certain location as homestay, he or she would need to protect him or herself with another person, sleeping together to ensure their safety. Luggage, on the other hand, are difficult to carry around all the time.
A typical homeless individual would rise between 4 to 5 A.M. in the morning, cleaning around themselves, an hour before 6 o’clock, when the city government prohibits homeless activity, until late in the evening, explains Dr. Tai. It’s impossible to sleep well; therefore, most of homeless people struggle with insomnia. Meanwhile, Taipei Main Station remains one of the most concentrated destinations for the homeless to reside, for it is stored with advanced facilities.
In late 2011, however, such actions were met with outright cacophony from the federal government, under President Ma. He ordered local fire departments to spew water with firehoses onto the homeless who lived near public facilities. In “Stop Hosing the Homeless（以為潑冷水，就看不到窮人）,” a short documentary taken by WPU and Homeless of Taiwan, clips of elderly vagrants are seen surprised by the initiative, their possessions liquidated by watery showers.
The documentary ends with the following questions: “Does President Ma wish to permit this violent truth, of facing water towards persons? Or does he want to continue denying? Is the president waiting to deceive citizens? Or are some lying to those above, and making light of those below?”
The outdoor environment would often negatively affect those displaced, says Dr. Tai. She walks us towards a lowlighted platform, covered with newspaper scraps and drawings on top of cardboard. Domestic conflict is still prominent between the homeless. “It’s still common these days,” says Dr. Tai.
In one of their first photography workshops, she saw a few drifters, in their 50s, going and beating against each other. They stopped after union members apprehended, but hostility remained. Changes in seasons also forces them to adapt to it based on temperature. In summer, they would have to move to areas that generate more shadow and less heat. During winter, cardboard and sweaters are necessary to “endure the cold.” Also, rain forecasts the “worst day.” “They wouldn’t want their stuff to be destroyed from the rain,” says Dr. Tai.
Chang is happy despite all the struggles he has gone through. He suffers from an intellectual disability, thinking with the level of a ten-year-old. Standing at a height of barely above 160 centimeters, some of his teeth are noticed protruding from his smile. Whenever a visitor asks him about his story, they are always surprised by his ability to quickly adapt to others and foreign surroundings. “They tell me that I was amazing, that I could ride on a bus, a taxi, I have no problems to do that,” he says, with a big smile.
A temporary employee at “Homeless and Sleepless,” but Chang is fine with it. For over 10 years, he hasn’t met his family, and he will never do so. “I will never step inside that house again ever,” he says.
Then he walked away, in search for something else to do.
Homeless and Sleepless Exhibition（愛睏展）
*Opened on June 23 and is to run until July 22
*Bopiliao Historic Block（No.161, Guangzhou St., Wanhua Dist., Taipei City 10852, Taiwan）