One sleep closer to home: housing for Chiang Mai’s homeless

Chiang Mai's homeless community may be small but they still need help and hope.

By | Mon 1 May 2017

Thailand’s homeless community is incredibly small compared to the rest of the world. According to the Issarachon Foundation, just 3,311 people were homeless in Thailand in 2015, which works out as just 0.005% of the population. To put it into comparison, the UK (which has a similar population to Thailand) has over 250,000 homeless people according to the charity Shelter, making up 0.4% of their entire population. America has double that. It may come as less of a surprise when you take into account the culture of family first, the many temples that take in boys and young men as novices and the ability to find cheap housing due to the low cost of living Thailand provides its citizens. However, there are those who do fall off the radar, are unable to help themselves and end up with nowhere to go. These homeless people are, on the whole, ignored, looked down on and often arrested by authorities before being driven far away from the city they were caught and sometimes even simply dumped by the side of the road like garbage. Yet over the last few years, attitudes have been changing, government funding has increased, and homeless numbers have started to decrease.

“In the West, people have to fend for themselves, and the homeless are usually on the streets due to financial reasons. Families are also less willing or able to help,” explained 42 year old Nantachat Nusrikaew, a representative of the Human Set Foundation, a foundation dedicated to encouraging self-sufficiency and the rehabilitation of Thailand’s homeless population. “In the East people are made homeless because they have fallen out with their family, or may have no family who can support them in difficult times.”

The Human Set Foundation
Nantachat joined the then much smaller Human Set Foundation in 1997, just as they began working on building Thailand’s first charity based homeless housing centre in Bangkok Noi. Using resources and money provided by donors and local municipalities, land was found and a homeless housing centre was constructed. The centre offered a safe place to stay for the homeless people in the area, as long as they contributed to maintain the centre; paying towards electricity, water and other bills, and were active and committed members of the community. The money the negligible amount of money the homeless paid went towards a form of insurance run by the foundation, which would help cover any medical expenses, vocational training and support applications for the re-issuing of ID cards.

“More often than not, homeless people lose their ID cards or have them stolen,” said Nantachat who revealed that a large part of the foundation’s time is dedicated to re-acquiring ID cards for the homeless. “As homeless people have no fixed address, they already lose a lot of rights that are taken for granted by you or me. If you have not made any contact with any government departments for over 20 years, you are registered as dead. If they left home as a minor, and their parents are dead or cannot be located, they are even harder to help as they have no real paper trail.” The main issue resides in proving that the homeless person is a Thai national. Although most who the foundation encounter are Thai, officials are still concerned that immigrants from neighbouring countries may abuse the system to acquire Thai nationality. “One of the men we helped was an orphan who ran away from a boy’s home when he was just 15,” said Nantachat. “When he left, he had no documentation and no ID to speak of. Now a grown man, it was almost impossible to get him an ID card as there was no records of him anywhere.”

Over the next two decades, the Homeless Housing Centre in Bangkok Noi became more and more successful, its success marked by the increasing donations as well as the number of homeless people who were eventually helped back onto their feet and now able to support themselves under their own roofs.

Eyes on the North
“We have been studying the homeless community in Chiang Mai since 2008,” said Nantachat. “I became head of the Chiang Mai project and relocated here to get involved with the local homeless communities.” Nantachat began hosting weekly meetings where the local homeless people would join together, chat, discuss any issues and build a community together based on communal trust and protection. Nantachat took on a pastoral role and through the foundation found ways to help solve their issues. Nine years on, they now also host a coffee afternoon every Friday and partake in regular community farming activities.

“After some time I started a homeless bank. One of the most trusted members of the homeless community was assigned the role of banker, and other people would leave their money with him overnight, meaning for the first time the homeless could begin to save money.” Nantachat explained that most homeless people feel they must spend every bit of money they make that day as it often gets stolen at night.

In 2009, the foundation hosted a ‘Meet and Greet the Homeless of Chiang Mai’ at Tha Pae Gate, where the governor, local officials and members of the public were invited to hear the voice of the homeless. As a result of that event, the local municipality asked for an exact number of Chiang Mai’s homeless, pledged to find a cheap and easily accessible piece of land in the city to donate and promised to seek a budget from the Community Organisation Development Institute (CODI). The goal: to recreate the successful homeless housing centre found in Bangkok, created by the Human Set Foundation.

By 2010, The Human Set Foundation had determined that there were 116 ‘resident’ homeless people in the Muang District of Chiang Mai city. With these figures, they contacted the municipality to get an update on the land situation…but the municipality fell short. “As the municipality was unable to find any land, we took it into our own hands and began renting a temporary residence in Loi Kroh that could house up to fifty people,” said Nantachat.

“We were lucky to have a home opposite a slum, so the neighbours had similar life experiences and got on well,” continued Nantachat. “As ‘temporary’ was beginning to look more like ‘permanent’, we moved to a new location near Chai Sriphum Temple. We began to get a taste of what neighbours could be like,” as small issues were often blown out of proportion fuelled by negative attitudes towards the homeless. By that time, over 80 people were on their books but only 18 lived there permanently. Adopting the systems created in Bangkok, the permanent residents had to pay for the bills, work to raise enough money to support the house and pay a small fee to live there which would go towards the foundation supported insurance that covered medical costs for the homeless residents, among other things.

It took over five years for CODI to finally provide the foundation with a budget, and on June 8th 2016 the foundation saw 118 million baht donated into its bank accounts – an official government subsidy that could be used to help re-energise and ultimately re-home the homeless of Thailand through social mobility.

Chiang Mai’s Big Break
With such a huge budget, the foundation immediately set to work finding land to buy and construct permanent homeless housing centres in Bangkok, Khon Khen and Chiang Mai. “We received almost 30 million baht for Chiang Mai,” said Nantachat who smiled with relief. “We bought a piece of land for 20 million baht in the Hai Ya area and are now in the process of building a brand new housing centre.”

With a budget of roughly 6.5 million baht, the foundation has begun construction of a centre designed to encourage the homeless who stay there to support themselves and eventually move out and rent independently.

The centre will have three types of accommodations. The first will be a dormitory which can sleep 30 people every night. It’s free for any homeless person who passes through its doors but if they stay longer than seven days they must then pay ten baht per night. They must also join in the monthly rubbish collection activities that helps raise funds for the centre and goes towards benefits and medical insurance provided by the foundation. The second tier has foldable plastic divides between every bed to offer more privacy. There are 18 of these beds at a cost of 250 baht per month. These rooms are reserved for anyone who has spent at least three months in the dormitory and there is an additional one baht fee per day and a requirement to join the monthly rubbish collection activity. Then there are the 12 individual rooms with personal electricity meters, fans and some basic appliances – much like a regular apartment. These rooms cost 450 baht per month, and residents must pay the 1 baht a day benefits charge, metered electricity costs as well as join in the rubbish collection activity. The cost of the room also increases by 50 baht per month every three years.

Nantachat explained how the money raised by the homeless was used to support them. “The one baht a day goes into our benefits fund. Just 20 people paying this earns us 600 baht a month. We also take 600 baht a month from monies collectively raised from the rubbish collection activity on the 25th of each month. The remaining cash earned from the recycled garbage is then is divided equally amongst the residents on that day. Another 600 baht is taken per month from the remaining money left from the government donation which currently sits at over three million baht. Another 7,200 baht minimum per year is raised from donations from the public.” Altogether, the foundation raises a minimum of 28,800 baht per year which is reserved to help pay for medical treatment, drugs, transport to and from hospitals, births, elderly care, and death. “Some of this money will also go towards re-issuing ID cards too, but so far the authorities in Chiang Mai have been very reluctant to help,” he added.

The concept is that from day one, any homeless person who decides to stay at the centre is encouraged to begin paying bills and earning money to support themselves independently. As they begin to earn more, they can afford a better bed, which in turn takes them one step closer to a regular lifestyle. Nantachat’s theory is that when they reach tier three and have their own room, they will soon want to head out and rent their own apartment independently so they are no longer obliged to partake in monthly rubbish collection activities and other communal events. “In fact, in Bangkok Noi the Four Regions Slum Network has offered some of their land for just 20 baht a sq/m to those leaving our centres to build their own homes with their friends and families,” said Nantachat. “Now we have 12 buildings out of the 20 lots available. It’s quite amazing to see a homeless person go from nothing to having their own homes. We plan to do the same in Chiang Mai by having the foundation buy cheap land then offer it for rent or purchase by those who leave our centres with some money and a secure job.”

Nantachat admitted that despite there being over 150 homeless people in Chiang Mai, only a handful have so far been willing to get involved on a permanent basis. “There are a few communities who sleep around Tha Pae and Nawarat Bridge who are yet to be totally convinced by our project. They don’t join in our activities and avoid us if they can. We are trying to work out why.” He added that during his time working with the homeless community, he noticed three types of people – the first group are those who are determined to develop themselves and become a self-sufficient member of society. The second are those who get involved at arm’s length, joining in activities but not yet sure on their future, and those who are not ready and not interested, often holding the opinion that the modern capitalist lifestyle is not for them, unable to adjust or just holding onto a more traditional laid back day to day survival mentality. “I see this group as a challenge, as ultimately I want to help them, and I know with the right encouragement they will want to help themselves too,” added Nantachat.

A Fresh Start
The planned completion date for the Chiang Mai Homeless Housing Centre is early- to mid-2018, when the core homeless community of 18 people who have been with Nantachat from the start get first dibs on rooms, naturally. The centre also plans to have areas for activities, a store to sell produce the homeless may have grown or harvested through certain career opportunities set up by the foundation, and even a community rooftop where they can meet and relax, watch TV and charge appliances free of charge.

“Homeless people have not done anything wrong,” concluded Nantachat. “They were just dealt a bad hand and ended up in a bad situation. Sometimes after years of living rough, they reconnect with their families and are taken in or manage to get a job and re-enter society, other times they are left with nothing and no clear way out. What we aim to do is encourage a stable life for all those who need it. Anyone can come and go at our centres and we have a strict open door policy. Young, old, disabled both physically and mentally, we accept them all. If Bangkok Noi is anything to go by, the Chiang Mai homeless centre will soon become the place to be for any homeless person who really wants to take control of their life again. We are not a soup house, we do not provide free boarding. We treat the homeless as hardworking adults, and they respect that.”

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