Adrift in the midst of a big city with a status of ‘homeless person’

People without a home and people without a place of shelter in Khon Kaen – many have to live lives in the public park surrounding Bueng Kaen Nakhon reservoir. Besides mutual encouragement among the homeless to resolve to fight for a life, Ban Home Saen Suk (Khon Kaen Homeless Commune) is a shelter that helps revive the potential of its members to get established to the point that they don’t have to go back to being homeless. But in the provinces, there are only 3 shelters for the homeless of a similar kind - in Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai, and Pathum Thani. Academics working on decentralization have proposed unlocking existing laws including local ordinances in order to enable each locality to help homeless people on their own. #LocalCreateInvestigativeMedia      

“I cried walking along the side of the road until I ended up at the edge of Bueng Kaen Nakhon.” Ekkaphon Somphong or “Tan,” aged 36, began telling his story with this sad sentence after, as someone with no refuge, he was callously chased out of a temple by a Buddhist monk who is supposed to have compassion to all living creatures. Missing home with a broken heart but unable to go back, not only did he have no money for the fare, but the home that he missed was not a nice place to live at all.

Ekkaphon Somphong, originally from Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) Province, is currently staying at Ban Home Saen Suk, Centre for the Restoration of People’s Potential and the Creation of a Community of Homeless People, Khon Kaen Province. (Source: Wanaree Srisari)

Back in 2006 before he brought himself to Ban Home Saen Suk, the Centre for the Restoration of People’s Potential and the Creation of a Community of Homeless People, a refuge for people who have no shelter in Khon Kaen Province, Ekkaphon had originally come from Nakhon Ratchasima Province. His hometown in Khorat is only 200 km away from where he is currently living. There was normal warmth under the roof of Thaen’s small house of with his father, mother and 2 elder brothers. He is the youngest son of the family. His oldest brother has left to have his own family in another province and they since lost touch. But his relationship with his middle brother was not good since childhood, often quarrelling with each other.    

Losing his father and without a breadwinner in the family, the poor relationship between the brothers created quarrels and bickering which grew more severe. Thaen could no longer bear the pressure at home and didn’t want his aging mother to face trouble, so he decided to move out, look for work and rent a house to live alone in the city of Khorat.   

Thaen has work skills. He got a job as electrician at one shop. After working for only 15 days, his employer placed him at another shop in Khon Kaen Province, but did not pay his wages. Thaen didn’t say a word of complaint. He hunkered down to work for a while. Everything seemed to go well until one day, he approached his employer to get his wages because he wanted the money to go back to visit his mother in Khorat.      

“I will give you just this damn 300. If you want the rest, you go and sue me for it.” This was the answer he got from his employer. But who can know that just these words could change someone’s life? Thaen was feeling very sorry. He walked gripping the 300 baht, wandered along absent-mindedly, and did not know at what point the money left his hand. He realized it when he was about to use the money to buy water.    

What to do now? “The temple should be the last place of refuge for villagers.” The thought flashed into his mind, so he walked into a temple to ask for something to eat. But he was briskly chased away by a monk. Shameless tears poured from him, a man. He walked in tears by the side of the road until he ended up at the edge of Bueng Kaen Nakhon and cried himself to sleep at the edge of Bueng Kaen Nakhon in the city of Khon Kaen for 4 nights with a feeling of extreme torment all the time. From being a person who lived as the youngest son of his family, who had a home to sleep in and food to eat at every meal, everything had changed, was upside down.  

Homeless people who have to live in the public space near Bueng Kaen Nakhon reservoir in the middle of the city of Khon Kaen. (Source: Wanaree Srisari)

Bueng Kaen Nakhon is a large lake in the middle of the city of Khon Kaen with an area of about 600 rai. It is a public park where a large number of people who have no shelter come to live. But life here is not as pleasant as going to have a picnic in the park every day. Each night, before Thaen and other people have the opportunity to fall asleep, they have to wait until 11:00 pm for the authorities to finish checking the park.  The difficult living conditions and heartbroken feelings drove Thaen’s mental health down to the point that he no longer wanted to live.    

But the person who helped him to suddenly realize that he should continue living was a disabled homeless person who collects bottles to sell as a living. It gave him the strength for a final effort to move into Ban Home Saen Suk on the suggestion of people who had lived there before.   

“I want to go out to build a house for 3 people to live together with Arthit and Phi Arm, because we are at least a group of people who understand each other’s pain the most during this short period of time that we have lived together on the bank of Bueng Kaen Nakhon.”

Athit Udomkan, originally from Roi Et Province. (Source: Wananree Srisari)

The Athit that Thaen talked about is a man named Athit Udomkan, also aged 36. He is heavily built, of few words, with sorrowful eyes. He looks like a person who always has something on his mind to think about all the time. He is originally from Roi Et Province, which is not that far from Khon Kaen.    

Earlier, Athit was a mechanic fitting nozzles at gas stations. The job kept him moving from place to place. Although his life was not that comfortable, it was not too difficult. The salary he got from the job was enough to provide for himself, his wife and his baby that had just opened its eyes to the world. It was enough to live from month to month until the Covid-19 pandemic changed his life.

Covid-19 caused an economic downturn. A large number of people who were already badly off became homeless. The results of a survey of the number of homeless in Bangkok and surrounding areas and Chiang Mai Province revealed the sad truth that the homeless increased by 19.42 per cent. And Athit was one of the new homeless as well.

“The last round of the Covid pandemic in Thailand took everything from me. I broke up with my wife. Then my wife took my baby and left me,” said Arthit. Around 2020, the deadly pandemic came in as an important game-changer that irrevocably changed the life of Athit and his family forever.

The burden of monthly expenses did not balance with his wages because the announcement of lockdown measures prevented Athit from working full-time. His wages obviously decreased, but his expenses were still the same. The distressing tight financial situation led to frequent arguments between Athit and his wife. Finally, his wife couldn’t bear the tense atmosphere in the house any more. She took the baby and went back to her hometown and has not been in touch since.      

Athit tried for a long time to find a job but was unsuccessful. The last time he tried his luck by returning to Khon Kaen with the 180 baht he had left, but when he got to Khon Kaen, his bad luck was to find out that the company where he used to work had already closed down, unable to withstand Covid as well.

He couldn’t think straight. He wandered along the road and met Thaen lying as a homeless person on the bank of Bueng Kaen Nakhon.   

(From left to right) Ekkaphon Sompong, Artit Udomkan and Khanucha Siharat. (Source: Wanaree Srisari)

The Phi Arm mentioned earlier is Khanucha Siharat. His age as it appears on his ID card was 40 in 2023, but his real age should be 44, because conflicts within his family delayed of his birth certificate registration for 4 years. These conflicts later made him homeless .

Arm said that his stepfather was bad-tempered and often physically attacked his mother when he got drunk, and sometimes he turned on Arm and attacked him as well. When he got to 15 years old, Arm couldn’t stand the vexation at home. He decided to pack his clothes and run away to live in Songkhla Province as someone with no relatives or friends.

In Songkhla, as he is LGBT, Arm made a living as a “show girl” at one bar. The work was not that difficult, with only performing the show each night, and once in a while he went out with customers. The income was good, so he spent fully 15 years of his life there without visiting his hometown at all.

The life of people in entertainment involves glamour, beauty, luxury and extravagance. Most of the money earned is spent on going out and drinking. Arm sought for a way of escape by ordaining as a monk at one temple in Udon Thani for 7-8 years. But couldn’t find a way out of the trap of unhappiness. He left the monkhood and returned to his hometown with the hope of living his life with his mother. But the same damned stepfather was still alive and his behaviour was the same.     

Arm left home again to look for work in Udon Thani. But this time was not so easy. When he couldn’t find other work, Arm collected bottles to sell for the income to support himself and travelled between Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. Finally, he decided to live in Khon Kaen for a while, mainly staying on the bank of Bueng Kaen Nakhon.

Arm spent his life as a homeless person for 3-4 years. Mostly he collected bottles and caught fish in the reservoir to sell. But as he got older, his environment was rather bad. From fishing in the putrid water and collecting bottles from dirty places his body accumulated pathogens. He had health problems starting with hand, foot and mouth disease and other diseases. 

One day, he cut himself on a little piece of glass but fell ill. He thought he was only sick with a normal cold, so didn’t pay attention to it. But then he had the symptom of feeling weak and sleepy all the time. “I thought that I wouldn’t make it that day. I felt lethargic and sleepy all the time.” Arm told explained.   

Life on the bank of Bueng Kaen Nakhon is solitary, but it’s not all about not knowing anyone. On the day that he was very ill almost to the point of his last breath, Artit came along. He shared the destiny of having lived in Ban Home Saen Suk. He brought the officials who took him to the hospital. The doctor found that Arm was infected with hepatitis A from living in a dirty place for a long time.

Today, Arm has recovered but cannot work hard. He can talk but more slowly and his voice is much softer. He cannot speak in long sentences. He has no strength, and has to take a load of medication every day as well. He has a place where he has settled, but does not know how much time he has left.

The story of Thaen, Athit and Arm is like a novel. But there is not just the three of them out there that have lives like this. The Thai Health Promotion Foundation reported that at present in Thailand, there are more than 2,499 homeless people who have been surveyed. The 5 provinces with the most homeless people that are Bangkok with 1,271, Chonburi with 126, Chiang Mai with 118, Khon Kaen with 73, and Kanchanaburi with 62.  

Ban Home Saen Suk may be a refuge for some homeless people. But there are only 3 provinces that have refuges for homeless people with a similar function: Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai and Pathum Thani. This means that most homeless people in the provinces are living in conditions where they have no refuge or place to stay.

 

‘Ban Home Saen Suk’ is the Centre for the Restoration of People’s Potential and the Creation of a Community for Homeless People

Ban Home Saen Suk (Source: Wanaree Srisari)

  • The house, located on Lao Na Di Road, Nai Mueang Subdistrict, Muang District, Khon Kaen Province, occupies an area of 3 rai and can accommodate up to 40 homeless people and jobless people.
  • It received about 24 million baht in financial support for construction from the state through the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI).
  • Ban Home Saen Suk is under the supervision of 2 organizations: the Homeless People’s Association and Khon Kaen Provincial Social Development and Human Security Office.
  • Ban Home Saen Suk provides the four requisites [of Buddhism]: food, clothing, medicine and shelter. But residents must work in exchange for a wage, such as volunteer assistants in fieldwork. The ultimate aim is to create jobs and occupations for them to be able to make a living on their own. 
  • Ban Home Saen Suk can be accessed by registering with volunteer staff who set up a drop-in point every Tuesday at Khon Kaen City Pillar Shrine.
  • Taking up residence there has rules that everyone in the house must follow, such as no alcohol, no gambling, compulsory contributions to water and electricity bills, and contributions to a saving fund for mutual assistance. 
  • Homeless or jobless people at Ban Home Saen Suk can take jobs from outsiders in order to earn income for themselves.
  • Constraints that discourage homeless people from choosing to live at Ban Home Saen Suk are: 1) a feeling of frustration from having to follow the house rules; and 2) the distance of Ban Home Saen Suk from where the homeless used to live and from where they previously were able to make a living.

 

Who can help them?

Ban Kaewcham, Head of Legal Affairs, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Provincial Administrative Organization. (Source: Wanaree Srisari)

Ban Kaewcham, Head of Legal Affairs, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Provincial Administrative Organization, is an academic in the field of local law and decentralization, who advocates and has expertise in decentralization. He seems to have the answer that it is better to truly decentralize power to the local level and allow the local authorities to help manage matters. Just putting the National Housing Authority or Ministry of Social Development and Human Security in charge will not solve problems.

Ban explained that the issues of homeless people and disparity are the same thing. The reason that homeless people leave their hometown to look for jobs in big cities such as Bangkok, Khon Kaen and Chiang Mai is because where they originally lived doesn’t have adequate resources and occupations. But big cities really do have more opportunity, but the risk is greater as well. When fortune seekers lose their jobs, there is a chance they become homeless because they have nowhere they can rely on.    

Decentralization means decentralizing power, money, jobs, people to the local authorities in order to set up self-governing provinces that will give localities the freedom to govern themselves in all matters. But there are 2 main factors why localities do not have the freedom to allocate assistance to the homeless in each locality.

First, local authorities do not have the budgetary freedom to make allocations in its own locality. At present, local authorities receive a budget of 29% of the net government revenue, divided into specific grants and general grants.   

Most specific grants come with policies and projects which the central government has already decided on, such as the Elderly Allowance Programme or the School Milk Programme. Local government does not have the authority to make decisions on these issues, having only the duty to receive the money and spend it according to the government’s policies. 

General grants make up 17-18% of net government revenue. Actually, this budget is not sufficient to provide services in local areas. Therefore, the budget allocation structure between central and local should be adjusted, in order for local government to have the money to solve the problems that occur in their localities, including homelessness.  

Second, local government does not have the freedom to administer and make different plans which central government have made because there will be duplication.

 

Local regulations related to policies for helping the homeless

The Determining Plans and Procedures for Decentralization of Powers to Local Administrative Organizations Act, B.E. 2542 (1999), 2nd Amendment, B.E. 2549 (2006), includes, in the sections related to providing assistance to the homeless:

Section 16 (12), which stipulates that Municipalities, the City of Pattaya, and Sub-district Administrative Organizations can provide public services which are related to improvement of slum community areas and housing management;

Section 17 (27), which stipulates that Provincial Administrative Organizations can provide public services related to social welfare and the development of quality of life for children, women, the elderly people, and the disadvantaged (the homeless are counted as disadvantaged).

Section 53 (5) of the Municipal Act stipulates that municipalities can provide public services related to management of housing and improvement of degraded areas.

Section 62 (5) of the Rules for Public Administration of Pattaya City Act, also stipulates that the local authorities can provide public services related to management of housing and improvement of degraded areas.

The Determining Plans and Procedures for Decentralization of Powers to Local Administrative Organizations Act has various provisions related to homeless people, but in practice local authorities cannot make plans that duplicate the work of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Section 15 of the Protection of Helpless Persons Act, B.E. 2557 (2014), stipulates that:  

“Ministry of Social Development and Human Security shall support local government agencies, public interest organizations, community welfare organizations, other private organizations, religion institutions or institutions to protect helpless people, to operate in the same manner as institutions to protect helpless people or to participate in the protection of helpless people.”

Ban said that complications in authority and function between central and local government is the very thing that deprives local authorities of the power to manage the issue of homeless people in their areas. And there has never been any local authority that has succeeded, because the expenditure of budget has been locked by Ministry of Interior regulations. This is because the regulations of the Ministry of Interior stipulate that ‘local authorities that shall disburse budget for any project must be supported by the regulations of the Ministry of Interior.’ The Determining Plans and Procedures for Decentralization of Powers to Local Administrative Organizations Act has no supporting regulations of the Ministry of Interior. Or in simple terms, Ministry of Interior regulations are superior to the Act, which creates the biggest problem for the administration of homeless people.   

Ban has proposed guidelines for decentralizing power to local authorities in order to help the homeless. The laws should be revised. The existing National Housing Authority Act, B.E. 2537 (1994) and Protection of Helpless Persons Act, B.E. 2557 (2014) should be amended to be enacted as local ordinances and promote local authorities in each locality to establish themselves as state enterprises and administer their own budget, including solving the problem of the homeless in their own locality.    

Apart from the issue of housing, assistance should be provided in creating work and jobs in order to solve the problem in the long term, Ban concluded.

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