For poor villagers, lure of street life proves too great

08:10, December 22, 2010      

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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."

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.

"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.

"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".

By Zhou Wenting, China Daily
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