Homelessness Was (and Still is) Taboo in Taipei City

Homeless in Taipei generally sit inside MRT stations or hang around train stations or underground shopping malls.

By Joon Kim

Taipei-Men. Middle aged. Uneducated. Has a mental or physical illness. Escaped domestic violence. Has no family. Is a runaway.

If you were living in Taiwan at the turn of the 20th century, and had accounted for at least one of these characteristics, you were most likely homeless.

This appeared in a lengthy, analytical and statistical report by Taiwan Review in 2001 on Taiwan’s homelessness in the 1990s. An excerpt found, by chance, in the archives of The View from Taiwan, a Flickr blog commentary based in Taichung, had forecasted “a little less shocking” diaspora that puts away a nationwide prospect into the shelves from the eyes of the one percent minority.

But is it true? Early scholars and present trends say yes.

“Some factors are unique to the individual, but there are also historical, political, and socioeconomic factors at work,” said Yang Yun-Sheng, “the only” social worker then responsible for the homeless welfare service center in the Taipei City Government. But not everyone had had become aware of this at all, due to low housing and basic living coverage, and public services.

However, over a decade after this publication, housing costs have already been soaring with a triple “jump” since the 1970s. First, oil rose with inflation. Second, financial deregulation and rapid capitalization “hastened” economic growth until 1989, wrote Brookings, a nonprofit global research organization based in Washington D.C., in 2015. Lots were “shell-less,” unable to afford houses and taking speculation risks.

Lastly, an ongoing “jump” has risen to unpredictable levels. An overflow in foreign capital and stable tax policies have contributed to this jump, yet a growing habitual reliance on speculation and fast capital buildup from real estate businesses has added to burden the state economy, as well as drastic changes in family structures, including lowering birth and marriage rates, and less generational “creations” in family.

“It is questionable whether or when the bubble will burst, because the speculative investments come from excess domestic capital, savings, and a continuing influx of foreign capital,” writes Yi-Ling Chen, in a 2015 op-ed article on Brookings. From an all-time low in Taiwan’s housing index in the fourth quarter of 2001, the numerical had nearly tripled to 281.96 in the same period in 2017. Some appear to think that a bubble collapse could ease the situation, whereas, others fear that, like Japan’s “lost decade,” its economy could bust and stagnate.

Those among the homeless are, surprisingly, prominently, former white collars. “You’ll even find people who used to run their own businesses,” said Chen Ting-Hsun, a shelter director of the Creation Social Welfare Foundation, based in Wanhua, one of the lowest paying districts in Taipei City. “They’re often difficult to recognize as homeless, because they may still be wearing suits and ties.”

“At present, there are only a handful of sad stories about aged, frail parents being dumped on the street or rummaging through the garbage in search of food, but their number will increase, and with each increase the tale will become a little less shocking, a little less of a spur to make people stop and think about where things are going,” wrote Taiwan Review.

Local media portrayal of the homeless has been seemingly embezzled with baseless bias, and their “parasitic” reputation has worsened overtime.

And their “parasitic” reputation has worsened overtime. “That’s the stereotype,” said Chen. “They’re lazy, filthy, drunk all the time, emotionally unstable, violent.” Local media portrayal of the homeless has been seemingly embezzled with baseless bias, said Chu Yi-Jun, director of the Social Welfare Service Center, in a New Bloom interview in October 2017.

The Taipei Metro Station stabbing spree in 2014 and the girl decapitation case in 2016 “have made many more people think mentally ill people are evil,” said Chu. “The media has played a major role in promoting this prejudice.”

Others have turned to foreign calibers to blame, which has led to a recent surge in poor working environments, low demands, and even relentless killings. After overseas laborers could be hired since 1990, those drawn from Southeast Asia “in search of cheaper overheads” immediately outpaced local employment to “only add frost to the snow,” Yang said.

A factory fire in Taoyuan City early in April engulfed five employees and two “migrant workers,” a collective term for overseas workhands. Also, a Vietnamese runaway who allegedly robbed a car in Hsinchu County was shot to death last September. An unsuccessful local referendum in July barred several Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers, who stated for changes in the Labor Standards Act, including flexible timetables and certified limits, outside the Taipei Metro Station.

However, these acts unanimously reflect local attitudes of the past decade, unchanged and not compromising for change.

“We encourage homeless people to work,” said Chen, who trained the homeless to become auxiliary helpers. “Contrary to what most people think, they’re very reliable and hardworking. That tells you they’re not a hopeless bunch; they can be helped.”