So, walking around Seoul last month, I had one of these out-of-body experiences that often overwhelm me, where my mind tries to trick me into thinking that I might have been teleported back to some other space-time similar. In this case Japan.
It started with the Christmas-y decorations that were already up, albeit in cellophane, despite the fact that it was early November.
And then it grew in insistence as I approached the glitzy neon central train station . . .
Amidst the imported commerce, the bright colors, stylish clothes, and the pulsating lights . . .
. . . somewhere beyond the the sleek romanized script, adorning the smooth surfaces that look like polished relics from civilizations afar and past . . .
tucked off in a corner . . . down one brightly-lit tunnel . . .
. . . are the homeless.
Just like back home, in Japan.
Prior to arriving, I didn't know whether this was a social problem. Frankly -- sheepishly -- I hadn't given it a moment's thought. As a peripatetique, I am often in and out of a place without having a chance to learn about the space I have been in congress with and moved through. There is rarely time to delve beneath the superficial, see beyond the surface textures. However, in this case, in the bowels of Seoul Station, how could I not wonder? After all, it was seated, slumbering, teeming, seething, teetering, crying out for redress, before my very eyes.
Being the possessor of a semi-curious brain, I did do a small spot of research once I returned home. The first thing I encountered was this website, which informs that "There are approximately 1 million homeless individuals in Seoul . . . (and) . . . because the population of greater Seoul is 24.5 million people . . . that means 1 in every 25 people is homeless in Seoul."
Assuming these figures are accurate, all one can say is: Wow.
Reading on, the author, Daniel Sangi Im, distinguishes three types of homeless “lifestyles”: a "large-community lifestyle", a "small-community lifestyle", and a "private lifestyle". Mr. Im asserts that there are 300 homeless, alone, in Seoul Station, and reckons that the twenty to thirty people who live together in the corridor I happened across constitute the "large-community" type in his tri-partite formulation. Group researchers might quibble, but still, twenty homeless bodies huddled together in neglect is a significant number; a problem certainly beyond "small".
Researching a bit more, I came across this academic paper on the subject. From this I learned that there were three types of "residential trajectory" for the homeless in Seoul: "chronic homelessness", "delayed homelessness" and a kind of "in-then out-then back in" condition, that doesn't have a catchy name. Of these types, 63% of the 225 subjects in this economic geographer's study were "chronic", 18% were "delayed" and about 8% were the "in-out-in" type. Significantly, in terms of duration, the author claims that:
The median duration of stay in "chronic homelessness" is 9 months. As far as "delayed homelessness" is concerned, the median duration of stay in motels or SROs is 7 months and that of homelessness is 9 months. Finally, as for "homelessness--exit--homelessness", the median spell of exit from homelessness is 3 months and the median duration of homelessness is 11 months.
So, in other words, whatever their residential type, the people in this homeless community at the station, pictured above, have been or will be out on the street for anywhere between seven to eleven months. Whether they spend all of that time in this tunnel may depend on the tolerance of the Korean public, the whims of the authorities, and the good will of their fellows in the homeless community.
But one thing that is certain . . . if homelessness in Seoul is like homelessness anywhere else in the world, above all, there will be little sympathy offered from any quarter beyond their tight tunnel community. In fact, if Seoul is like anywhere else in the world, there will be a blurring of the lens . . . a fuzziness in recognition, an intentional erasure from the viewfinder, a wiping from consciousness.
Leading one to wonder: is the general population really that heartless? Are they actually that soul-less? Will they turn a blind eye; allow the social screen to fade-to-black?
No different than America. Just like Japan.