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Shelters: Poor villagers settle for city streets

Updated: 2010-12-22 07:11
By Zhou Wenting ( China Daily)

Help for the homeless failing to tackle the problem's root causes, experts tell Zhou Wenting in Beijing.

Working the graveyard shift at a grocery store opposite Beijing Railway Station, Luo Jianguo sees his fair share of homeless people.

"He's been here for about a month," he said, pointing to a man sleeping under ripped cardboard in a disused telephone booth. "I only know he is 23 and comes from Shandong province. Most of the time he refuses to talk."

Shelters: Poor villagers settle for city streets
A homeless man shelters from the cold in front of a shop, adorned with Christmas decorations, in Dongdan, Beijing after refusing help from a State-run social assistance center. [Photo/China Daily] 

Luo gave the man a green quilt to see him through the winter months but it was soon stolen by another homeless person.

Not far from the booth, vagrants also congregate on cold nights in the train station's heated waiting rooms and a 24-hour McDonald's restaurant. Few, if any, would consider staying in the State-run assistance centers.

Workers at the nation's 1,376 official homeless shelters have been busily preparing for the winter months. Yet, experts say the reluctance among people to use them shows authorities are failing to address the root causes of homelessness.

"Social assistance centers seem to try their best on the coldest days but a long-term solution to helping the needy requires further insight into people's livelihoods," said Gu Jun, a sociologist at Shanghai University.

The man in the telephone booth sleeps roughly 23 hours a day, rising only at about 2 am to scavenge food from the station's trashcans.

Shelters: Poor villagers settle for city streets
From left to right: Zhang Tie, a homeless person in Dalian, Liaoning province, sits at a bus stop; Li Xingfeng, 31, has spent 10 years sleeping rough around Beijing Railway Station; Feng Yuanjian, director of the social assistance center in Beijing's Dongcheng district, scours the streets for people in need during winter months; Wang, 60, who hails from Shanxi province, survives by collecting empty bottles around Beijing Railway Station. [Photo/China Daily]

"People from the assistance center have come several times to try and get him go with them, but he refused each time so they left," said Luo at the grocery store.

Under the regulations, government workers can only "advise and escort" vagrants and beggars, they cannot take a person to a shelter against their will.

If a person takes the advice, they can get free food and accommodation, as well as a train ticket voucher to return to their home village. However, given the option, the vast majority of people choose to shiver on the streets.

"We help about three to eight homeless people in the streets (every day), giving them free coats, blankets and instant noodles," said Feng Yuanjian, director of the social assistance center in Beijing's Dongcheng district, which includes Beijing Railway Station and the prosperous Wangfujing shopping area and has an extremely high concentration of homeless people.

Shelters: Poor villagers settle for city streets
A 23-year-old man from Shandong province who has been sleeping in a disused telephone booth at Beijing Railway Station for about a month. He sleeps most of the day, rising only to search for food. Like many other homeless people, he rejected an offer of help from a State-run social assistance center. [Photo/China Daily] 

"Few agree to go to the assistance centers, except the very old or sick," he said. Those who do take up the offer of free train tickets "tend to reappear not long after leaving, with some repeating the cycle many times".

Compared to previous methods, the relief system set up by the State Council in 2003, which required all governments above county level to open social assistance centers and provide timely and effective help to the homeless, is a major step forward.

With cold snaps forecast from Harbin in far northeastern Heilongjiang province to Sanya in the southern island province of Hainan, centers nationwide are on full alert.

Officials in Dalian, a coastal city of Liaoning province, launched a 24-hour rescue hotline, while shelter employees scoured the streets for people in need every day, said Hou Yuxi, director of Dalian Salvation Management Station.

Shanghai has set up temporary shelters at all 21 assistance centers across the city to work around the clock providing hot food and bathing facilities. Each is fitted with up to 50 beds.

"As the temperature continues to drop, more resources and materials will be offered to the homeless," said Ren Zhiyue, an official with Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau's social welfare division.

Staff members at 16 Beijing assistance stations make a daily sweep of their districts in minibuses to try and persuade vagrants and beggars to spend the cold nights at their shelters.

Yet, despite all the effort, there are still few takers. The center in Chaoyang district, Beijing's biggest with 200 beds, usually has only a maximum of 20 visitors at any one time.

"More volunteer organizations should be participating in the salvation," suggested sociologist Gu at Shanghai University, "especially as the government's assistance is being rejected by the homeless."

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