A Place for Homeless People? :The Pandemic and Homelessness in Taipei

Written by Yi-Ching Huang , Translated by Sam Robbins.

Image Credit: 123 人權尾牙 by Steve Lai/Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Please note: this photo was taken before the current pandemic outbreak

In 2020, during the sudden spread of the global pandemic, it seemed that only Taiwan had successfully defeated the virus. However, this myth was shattered in 2021, when community transmission started to occur. From May 1st to June 1st, the total number of cases in Taiwan shot up from 1132 to 8842. 

Following the government’s announcement of level three restrictions (effectively a soft lockdown limiting in-door gathering to five persons but not formally requesting offices to work from home), the government has closed all recreational spaces and banned eating in restaurants. Certain public utilities are now also closed. These measures have greatly affected the lives of those who live on the streets. Homeless people, who had previously taken refuge in Taiwan’s many 24-hour McDonald’s and internet cafes, were forced back to sleeping on the streets. Water dispensers and free charging spots amongst other public recourses have also closed, making life on the street much more challenging. In addition to this, many non-profit organisations, and religious organisations that originally had provided support to homeless people considered stopping service due to the outbreak. The short-term hire opportunities that many homeless people relied on to make money also dried up. With fewer spaces to rest, fewer public recourses available, fewer organisations offering support, and fewer work opportunities, the level three restrictions have undoubtedly hit homeless people the hardest. 

Although everyone is at risk of catching COVID-19, the impact of the disease and preventative measures fall most harshly on already marginalised communities. Wanhua district of Taipei, which has a relatively high proportion of such disadvantaged groups, was also one of the first places to experience community transmission. This outbreak has dramatically increased the stigma attached to Wanhua, and many shipping companies, food delivery services and other recourses stopped servicing Wanhua. In the face of these pressures, communities in Wanhua have had to rely on their collaboration and communal work to help provide the recourses that are no longer present. This community solidarity is perhaps one of the few silver linings of the dark cloud of the current outbreak. 

Do you a Flavour (人生百味) and The Homeless Taiwan Association (芒草心), two non-profit organisations helping the homeless in Taiwan, started reaching out to community’s in Wanhua the minute that the government declared level three restrictions and have sent people to the streets to distribute recourses two to three times a week. This system has continued for over two months, and it relies wholly on donations and volunteers from Wanhua. Sweet Potato Jelly (涼粉伯), a food-stall in Wanhua, has transformed itself into a drop off station for resources helping to collate donations from the public and organise the delivery of such donations to homeless people near Taipei Main Station and Mengxia Park. Fang He-Sheng (方荷生) Village Chief (里長) of Zhongqin (中正區忠勤里), located next to Wanhua, has organised the Nanjichang Food Bank, which has helped to make essentials more accessible in Wanhua. Councillors, key opinion leaders, and several religious communities have also provided aid and helped slowly expand the recourse cooperation network existing in Wanhua.

Due to the massive influx of donations to Wanhua, the effort required to coordinate and organise these new resources significantly increased. Moreover – Emma (一碼), a community organisation space – has become the new home of a donation and delivery system. Furthermore, efforts have been made in cooperation with Langren Shitang 浪人食堂 in Raohe Night Market to help offer work opportunities to homeless people during the outbreak. 

In Taiwan, it has been PPE, water, and food that has made up most donations. Food coupons have been used much more commonly in other countries. However,  these have not been used in Taiwan due to the pandemic. With many fearing a potential implementation of level 4 restrictions at any time, which would amount to a complete lockdown, people worry that food coupons will become effectively useless if convenience stores close. To ensure longer-term utility, donations are now primarily in the form of dry or preserved foods. 

Many are worried about whether collecting and delivering donations could become a hotspot for infections. The social workers stressed that if they stopped doing this work due to the pandemic, there would be no one left to ensure food and other resources make it to those who need them the most. All the social workers can do is try to ensure that they take all preventive measures possible, such as wearing visors, masks, and PPE. Thanks to the fast coordination and response from such non-profits in Wanhua, the power and potential of community-level organising has become apparent. 

Although homeless people in Wanhua are mostly no longer at immediate risk of going hungry, the pandemic has brought to light a severe problem that has not yet been resolved– housing. During the pandemic, the number of homelessness has increased. For example, there are likely at least 80 additional people living near Taipei Main Station.  Many of the spaces homeless people often sleep in Taipei have become increasingly crowded. Thus, maintaining social distance has become more complicated when it has become most crucial to do so. The Taipei City Government Homeless Shelter only has 250 beds and has not been able to help many in need during the outbreak. 

In addition, quarantine and self-health monitoring have been significant challenges. When medical resources started to become stretched in May and June, the government announced that those with mild symptoms could stay at home and quarantine rather than being sent to a hospital. Those who have encountered an infected person must also stay in quarantine until their test results come back. These policies pose little challenges to those with a house, but they can create severe problems for homeless people. Luckily, medical resources have now become less strained, and measures have been updated. So far,  the government is now offering subsidies to help homeless individuals deal with any costs incurred after becoming infected. The Taipei City government has also released a scheme to allow homeless individuals to get preferential access to vaccinations, and vaccination rates for this group are between 30%-40% at the time of writing.

Notwithstanding these positive turns, the question of reducing the risks of infection faced by homeless people and make street life safer for them remain undressed. In some countries, projects have been put in place in cooperation with hotels that allow homeless individuals to live in during the pandemic. For example, in Seattle, results from the last year of this policy have shown that providing such spaces has greatly improved homeless people’s lives. Many have improved mental and psychical health, and the new space has given them the space to apply for jobs and look for work. In such situations, the crisis of the pandemic has an opportunity to potentially improve things long term. 

Despite these successful trials, no such measures exist in Taipei, which lacks systematic measures to help homeless people find homes. In a society where the pandemic is now becoming more severe at any time, helping homeless people find a house is crucially important. Taiwan should try to learn from the successes of policies abroad, understand the potential positive impact housing can bring. Housing is not just space; it is intimately linked with one’s wellbeing and health. Hopefully, this outbreak will force more people to understand this, and perhaps it can even be a turning point in the treatment of homeless people in Taiwan. 

Yi-Ching Huang is a graduate student in the department of sociology, National Taiwan University, where she researches homelessness and inequality in Taiwan. In cooperation with Do you a Flavor, since the beginning of the pandemic, she has been researching the impact of covid-19 on homelessness and homeless people world wide. You can contact her at r09325002@ntu.edu.tw.

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