TAIPEI: Yan Chun-Fang never thought he would ever become homeless.
The 61-year-old used to make up to US$2,000 a month painting houses and offices. But last year, he lost his job when he fell ill.
Without enough savings, family or friends that could help him, he could not pay the rent and subsequently lost his home.
He has since found shelter at a halfway house in New Taipei City where he sometimes volunteers to help maintain the paintwork.
“My biggest fear is that I can’t work," Yan said.
"Once you can’t work, you don’t have money to live. So I have to work or else where am I going to get the money?"
His friend at the shelter, Su Ying-Chih, spent three months living on the streets when he lost his job at a factory after it moved to China.
And it is not a life he would ever want to experience again.
“I slept in a park, on the ground. I could only sleep there from 9pm," said the 58-year-old. "At 5am, I'd be woken up and asked to leave."
But Yan and Su are the lucky ones who found a place to stay at a shelter. Besides accommodation, they also get food and medical treatment there.
The shelter also helps them find part-time jobs like being a security guard or cleaner, or holding up signboards so that they can make money and eventually find their own homes.
“We start by helping to take care of their emotional and physical needs as the first step," said Kuo Hung-Sheng, head of social welfare department for New Taipei City government.
"After they regain emotional and physical stability, we help them find work and return to society."
HOMELESS PROBLEM EXACERBATED BY WIDENING INCOME GAP
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the majority of Taiwan's homeless are male blue-collar workers aged over 50 who lost their jobs when factories moved their operations, primarily, to China and Southeast Asia.
The problem has been further exacerbated by the widening gap between the rich and poor, which reached record levels in recent years.
Based on official data from Ministry of Finance, the top 5 per cent, which made an average of US$150,000 a year, was more than 100 times higher than the average of the bottom 5 per cent in 2016.
This gap has nearly doubled in the span of a decade.
Skyrocketing property prices and stagnant wages in Taiwan are making it harder for people on minimum wages to survive on the island, said Academia Sinica associate research fellow Lin Thung-Hong.
"Taiwan’s production lines moved overseas to China and to Southeast Asia," he said.
"The result is that people at the bottom of society lose their jobs. That's the main reason for the increase in the number of low-income families.”
COULD THE DEFINITION OF HOMELESS BE A PROBLEM?
Based on official data released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, nearly 9,300 people in Taiwan were reported as homeless last year, double the number reported in 2013.
But a ministry official argued that the actual number of homeless was only 2,600 - as some cases were repeatedly over-counted while others were just suspected of being homeless.
“Our definition of homeless is people who frequently sleep on the streets without a residence," said Lee Mei-Chen, director general at the Department of Social Assistance and Social Work.
"There are three types of homeless. The first type is those who have lost their jobs.
"The second, those who have lost their ability to work and therefore don’t have any money for rent. And the third group consists of the old and lonely."
Academia Sinica’s Lin fears that such a stringent definition of homelessness could underestimate the severity of the problem.
“As long as the person's family has some form of residence, like a farmhouse in Tainan or Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, he would not be considered homeless even if he has to sleep on the streets of Taipei,” he said.
He also feared the homeless problem could worsen with Taiwan’s fast-ageing population and low birthrate.
“With stagnant wages, so many can’t afford to have children. The low birthrate has led to an ageing population and some elderly get abandoned as a result," he said.
That is exactly the problem Yan Chun-Fang is facing, with no children or family to support him. Now his only wish is for his health to improve so that he can get back on his feet.