BANGKOK: A group of people were hard at work on the dusty roadside by a railway.
Wearing yellow aprons and black gloves, they swept dry leaves into piles and scooped up garbage with their hands. Their faces are wrinkled and beaded with sweat while their skin burned in the scorching sun. But they are happy to do it every week.
“The job is easy but you have to be clean and focused. You can’t just do it for fun,” said one of the cleaners, Chalee Maneeterm.
Like his colleagues, Chalee is a participant of the Hire Me project or "Jangwan Ka" in Thai, which seeks to provide jobs for people with no home or on the brink of becoming homeless.
The initiative was launched in July by the Mirror Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that has advocated social development in Thailand since 1991. So far, the project has attracted about 100 participants. Most of them are aged between 55 and 70 and do not have enough funds to start a new life on their own.
“I stay at a market. There’s a place for me to sleep there but it’s not really meant for that. I can use it, though, without causing trouble to anyone. Sometimes, people give me things,” Chalee said when interviewed by CNA.
Three years ago, an accident cost him the sight of his left eye and forced him to spend his savings on medical bills. Life has since become a struggle with jobs proving hard to find.
People think he is “incomplete”, he said, but things got even worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chalee has no permanent job and relies on charity to get buy. Each time he wants to have a shower, he has to find 10 baht (US$0.34) to use bathrooms or go to a temple that would allow him to use the facility for free.
“If I have a chance, I’d like to do something else to make myself better and not have to depend on others all the time,” he said.
Chalee is one of more than 2,700 people with no home in Thailand, according to a survey in January by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and related organisations.
Data showed 86 per cent of this vulnerable group were male and more than half lived alone. They are scattered across the country but concentrated in big cities such as Bangkok, Nakhon Ratchasima, Chiang Mai and Songkhla.
“The root cause of the problem is that these people have a home but they can’t live there for various reasons, for example, a financial problem with people in their house. They feel they can no longer stay there and choose to leave. But they don’t have any capital that’d allow them to, let’s say, rent a room or stay with friends for two months while looking for a job,” said Hire Me project manager Sittiphol Chuprajong.
“In most cases, homeless people have very little capital – limited education, hardly any savings and even their age; most of them are elderly,” he added. “It makes them unable to find jobs.”
As a result, thousands of people have ended up on the streets and public areas such as train stations, bus stops and parks.
“DON’T HAVE TO RUN TO BEG FOR FOOD ANYMORE”
Since July, the Hire Me project has provided a number of homeless people with cleaning jobs. Sittiphol and his team coordinate with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration in sourcing public areas for them to clean at least once a week.
The venues range from pedestrian bridges to parks and pavements. Each session lasts three to four hours and the cleaners get paid 400 baht (US$13).
“Almost every single one of them are enthusiastic to work because they feel they get to do something with their life instead of having to beg all the time,” Sittiphol said.
For those who are serious about saving up, they can opt for working four times a week to earn more. One of them is Natcha Sangyot, who became homeless at the age of 54.
Like Chalee, the COVID-19 pandemic made it hard for her and her sister to find a job. With no money to rent a room, the pair had to stay around a bus stop in Bangkok and live on charity. They had to queue for hours in the sun every day to receive food donations. At night, they had to be careful about lurking dangers.
“We would sit at the bus stop the whole night and take turns sleeping,” Natcha said.
There were other homeless people there and they’d grope us. Some taxi drivers came to grab our hands. Sometimes when we were asleep, people would steal our belongings – shoes and bags. That’s how it was. So, we had to be careful.
Natcha and her sister lived on the streets for weeks before someone introduced them to the Hire Me project. Then life began to change. With regular income, they have been able to save money, rent a room and stop taking turns to sleep at night.
“Life is much better now as we don’t have to stand in the sun or sit in the square all day,” Natcha said.
“I don’t have to run to beg for food anymore. We have some savings to pay for showers and to buy food without having to queue for hours with other people,” she added. “I’m proud.”
“THESE LITTLE THINGS WE TAKE FOR GRANTED”
Natcha has been paying rent herself for three months now. The joy of having financial independence makes her continue to work hard. But not everyone on the streets can achieve what she has done.
Through years of working with homeless people in Thailand, Sittiphol has discovered that a key challenge faced by this vulnerable group is a lack of stable jobs and access to basic facilities such as bathrooms, toilets and laundry areas, which affects their quality of life.
While the government provides shelters for homeless people, he said very few of them want that kind of support because it is not compatible with their lifestyle.
“Most residents of state shelters have mental health problems – about 80 per cent of them. This makes ordinary people like those with no home feel suffocated if they have to stay there, where they’ll be put together, sleep together and share the same space. They can’t handle it,” Sittiphol told CNA.
“Also, there is no freedom. They can’t really go anywhere and that doesn’t suit their lifestyle, which involves finding income,” he added.
According to Sittiphol, homeless people in Thailand have different needs and not all of them want to have a home. To help improve their life, social workers who run the Hire Me project chose to target unemployment among the homeless population. They believe a key factor that could help them transform and improve their quality of life is a job.
“They can buy new clothes and products to look after themselves such as soap and toothpaste. They can take care of themselves more often. Those who pay to use bathrooms can shower more,” Sittiphol said.
These little things we take for granted mean a lot to them. They want to be clean. They want to shower. And to be able to spend money without having to beg means much to them. It brings back their pride, as these people normally have to wait for charity.
“When they have income, they’ll also think ‘What should I do with the money?’. So this will lead to a certain decision that’s important to their life, for example, find a place to live that’s not on the streets or public places,” he added.
On the roadside, black garbage bags are filled with dry leaves and rubbish. Work has been finished and the cleaners were preparing to go home. Chalee may not have one to go back to just yet but he is working on it.
“I would like to have a gas stove and sell fried chicken with sticky rice in the morning,” he said.
“I may be disabled but I’m 100 per cent ready,” he added. “I can see the whole world, not just half of it.”