Over the more than one year that has passed since the pandemic started, everyone has been going through a myriad of difficulties, such as the death of loved ones, layoffs, bankruptcies, and poorly-functioning online school classes. While some have suffered more than others, the most marginalized of society have arguably suffered the most as they were already in dire situations at the start. For instance, after returning from a trip via KTX train and disembarking at Seoul Station, I couldn't help but notice the mass of homeless people milling around outside the station. Honestly, I was shocked and a little scared. Soon after, however, my initial feelings shifted toward empathy.
Many of them were not masked, some were sleeping on the ground under the moonlight, a few were openly consuming alcohol boisterously, and one unmasked woman was bleeding from her nose while physically fighting two police officers. Apparently, coronavirus infections at homeless shelters have caused them to close and forced the homeless onto the street. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210126000977. The hi-tech metropolitan image of Seoul, the capital of the 9th largest economy in the world according to the 2020 GDP, was forever tarnished in my eyes. The scene that particular night made me realize both how dire and unknown the homeless problem is.
|[Screenshot of PLUR Seoul on the Meetup app. Photo credit: Hankyum Kim]|
After walking around some more, I came upon a center run by the city government called the “Hope Center,” adjacent to Seoul Station. There were some foreigners milling around out-front speaking English, and I became curious about what they were doing. As I just stood there staring at them, one woman asked me in English if today was my first time. I told her I didn't know what she was referring to, and she told me that she was a part of a volunteering program that feeds the homeless around Seoul Station every Sunday night. If I was interested, I could RSVP on the mobile app called “Meetup” for the volunteering program called “PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) Seoul.” I thanked her for the information and promised to be there next week.
|[The Seoul Metropolitan Government Hope Center. Photo Credit: Hankyum Kim]|
After registering for the app and reserving space for two members, as I had convinced one of my friends to accompany me, I headed back to Seoul Station the following Sunday. The Meetup app explained that a 10,000 won donation was required for each volunteer to cover the cost of the food and that we were to meet in front of the center at 7:30pm. The interesting aspect of the program is that it is not a traditional soup line, but rather volunteers packed food boxes and then walked around downtown Seoul to pass them out to homeless people living in subway stations, alleys, parks, and under bridges.
|[Preparing the food to be handed out. Photo credit: Nat Roesler]|
After packing the food boxes with bananas, hard-boiled eggs, cookies, candy, bread, and milk, we were given some instructions on how to interact with the recipients of the food. This included instructions to give just one food box per person as some might ask for more, not step on their cardboard homes, that leave alone anyone who refused the boxes, and not take any photos. We then headed off into the night in a group of 9 members.
|[Group photo with volunteer members in front of Namdaemun Gate. Photo credit: Nat Roesler]|
When we encountered our first group of homeless people in a subway station, I was apprehensive to approach them and let others go first so that I could observe. The recipients were very thankful for the food, which put me at ease. I then started to hand out the boxes myself and was pleasantly surprised at how appreciative each person was. I was able to see the people up close, and it really had me thinking a lot about the homeless problem. There were a mix of senior citizens and middle-aged men, but one particular person caught my eye. He looked like he was in his mid-20s, wore very clean clothing, and sat in his cardboard box reading a book. He didn't look like a typical homeless person and made me think that perhaps he had recently lost his job and became homeless. When I offered him a food box, he politely declined and went back to reading his book. If I hadn't seen him there and had just encountered him walking down the street, I would’ve probably just assumed that he was an office worker.
As we wrapped up the evening with a group photo in front of Namdaemun Gate, I felt refreshed by the exercise and thankful to the volunteer program for letting me participate. Homeless people occupy every city in the world, and although it is a problem that may never be solved, doing my small part that night gave me a close-up look into a social issue that needs more attention. I plan to attend the volunteering program at least once a month and I hope I can convince more of my friends to come with me. Seeing the smiles and gratitude on the faces of the recipients is a feeling that I want to experience again and share with others.
Seoul Scholars International
Hankyum Kim email@example.com