Top: Suwit Nakprakong, at left, with others Friday at the Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok.
BANGKOK — While many rush through the capital’s main train station on their way to somewhere, dozens of more regular guests linger at its fringes. For them, Hua Lamphong is what they are compelled to call home.
Outside, behind a row of European-style columns, Suwit Nakprakong has nothing bad to say about the five months he’s slept there. But the Yala-born 41-year-old was eager to discuss plans to journey home so that he could vote for a government that “cares about poor people.”
“I’ve decided who I’ll vote for,” he said on a recent afternoon. “My home is in Yala. I’ll go back there to vote. I’m saving money for transportation.”
All the rhetoric and promises of this election’s political campaigning have missed this neglected pool of voters – the homeless. Suwit said many of his acquaintances engage in daily political discussions and watch television inside the station to “keep up with what’s going on.”
Though they live on the margins, Suwit and the other Hua Lamphong homeless are enthusiastic about the election’s outcome despite little optimism they’ll be better represented in a society deeply prejudiced against them. Altogether they represent about 70,000 votes to candidates who, despite making vague pledges of support, have no policies to help them directly.
“They are actually very interested in politics, in the election, in the policies presented by the parties,” said Sittiphol Chuprajong, who works with the homeless for the Mirror Foundation. “We want to tell society that they’re also interested. Therefore, what the politicians ask or do should include their interests as well.”
Many may be prevented from voting in the kingdom’s first election in five years simply because they don’t know their rights.
“Most knew that there will be an election March 24, but they didn’t know about early voting,” Sittiphol said. “Most of them are not from Bangkok. … Many feel that going home would cost too much … or they don’t know where to stay because they’d left due to family problems.”
Boonrak Saengsawang, a 52-year-old from Ubon Ratchathani, is among those who won’t be casting a ballot Sunday.
“I’m very excited. I want to vote, but I lost my ID card, and I didn’t know about the early vote,” he said out in the parking lot. “So I think my right is lost this time.”
Living homeless intermittently for 15 years, Boonrak’s life reflects the bitter inequalities embedded in Thai society and inadequate efforts to uproot them, Sittiphol said.
More than 70,000 homeless lived throughout the kingdom in 2017, about 3,600 of which were in Bangkok, according to the Social Development and Welfare Department, which said the population had surged due to families’ declining fortunes.
Nearly a third of the homeless in 2016 lack ID cards, a requirement to vote, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation said.
No Way Out
During his years with the foundation, Sittiphol has found it difficult to get the public or government interested in homeless issues, mainly because of the ingrained prejudice against them.
“Most people believe homeless people are lazy people,” he said. “Our society sees things in black and white … We were taught that a bad life is caused by laziness, but most homeless people have worked hard their entire lives.”
That’s the case for Boonrak, who said that homelessness has deprived him of a normal life for nearly half his adult life. He travels between his hometown and Bangkok looking for enough work to get by. He often fails.
“I go back to Ubon during the rice-harvesting season. When that ends, I’ll come back to Bangkok to find jobs,” he said, usually as a day laborer. “I still can’t find a job these days.”
While major parties have campaigned on promises to help the underprivileged, none has addressed homelessness. Representatives from several front-running parties offered ambiguous blanket vows to improve welfare when asked, but lacked detailed answers on how they would tackle the issue.
Sittiphol said he has seen just a few hopeful policies for homeless people and says those at the top don’t understand the issue enough to come up with effective measures.
“The problem is with the policies themselves and the commitment. They’re not realistic,” he said.
Sittiphol said unemployment and low wages are major problems which make it almost impossible for those in such circumstances to secure a decent job and survive on their own – let alone save money – without any support.
“When they’re paid very little, they can’t build any savings that would help improve their lives,” he said. “They are able to make it better only when they stay with family, but 90 percent of them can’t. Some spent lengthy periods in prison. Some were simply abandoned.”
Recent surveys conducted by the Thai Health Foundation found over half of homeless people were older than 40 or ill. About 70 percent suffered from mental health problems, and about 4 percent had severe disabilities. These factors limit their opportunities in the job market even more.
Asked about his party’s prescriptions for the homeless, Kobsak Pootrakul of the Phalang Pracharath Party answered with a prolonged silence before promoting the junta’s welfare card program for low-income Thais. The program offers monthly credit balances for specified expenses such as transportation and groceries to “provide a minimum wage to the people, to let them have both savings and money to get by every day.”
Critics have said the program’s many restrictions make it just another spending stimulus rather than sustainable source of help.
Phalang Pracharath previously promised to raise the daily minimum wage from the current 330 baht to up to 425 baht. After a major public backlash, it backtracked and said the increase wouldn’t cover workers who “have no skills.”
Kobsak said the government has already done well in providing other forms of welfare such as healthcare. However, a 2016 survey indicated that over half of homeless Thais can’t access healthcare due to their legal status or a lack of information.
Both Hua Lamphong residents Suwit and Boonrak said they have never sought welfare cards. They are also ineligible for free state healthcare in Bangkok for bureaucratic reasons: Boonrak lost his ID; Suwit’s residency is still registered in Yala.
Representatives from the Pheu Thai and Future Forward parties pledged to resolve and reform the identification process to make state welfare more accessible.
Acknowledging the problem, Pheu Thai spokeswoman Ladawan Wongsriwong said her party would try more to reach out to the underprivileged and educate them about their entitled benefits.
But she said the party would prioritize efforts to “return them to the family” or “encourage community support” to improving their lives, solutions Sittiphol thinks are “too romantic.”
“These people can’t stay with family. That’s why they leave to be on their own,” he said. “The solutions should be how to help them make it as an individual. Society has changed. … We can’t keep thinking that family must help each other these days.”
Suwit said he left his Yala home last year with a 9-year-old son because of unspecified family troubles. Head trauma from a nearly fatal accident has made him struggle to find a job since. His son sleeps beside him outside the station.
“I graduated from Siam Technology College and got a job, but I was laid off when I was 25. I was in a motorcycle crash,” he said, pointing to a large scar on the side of his head where his skull caved in.
When asked about homeless issues, most candidates quickly pivot the conversation to affordable housing.
Former factory worker Wanwipa Maison of Future Forward said that in addition to improving access to employment and education, her party would focus on making housing more affordable.
“People don’t have homes because of capitalism and a monopolized economy, which makes housing more expensive and difficult to access,” she said.
Phalang Pracharath’s Kobsak vows to continue the junta’s many housing programs, which he credits for successfully providing “affordable” accommodations, some of which he said cost “just 2,000 to 2,500 baht a month.”
Though the government pushed back against its findings, a Credit Suisse report recently declared Thailand had surpassed Russia and India to become the world’s most unequal nation.
Ramet Rattanachaweng spoke of the Democrat Party’s elaborate policies to address the gulf between the have-alots and have-nothings.
“We have pretty clear policies on how we will take care of low-income and underprivileged people,” he said. “The important thing is housing. … We need to provide them affordable and hygienic places to live.”
To achieve that, Ramet said his party would boost land ownership; create a special committee to oversee housing and urban development; build state housing and give tax breaks to those with low incomes.
When Ubon native Boonrak was asked why he can’t find a place if rents are as low as 2,000 baht, he replied “I don’t have money. Barely enough just for everyday food and groceries.”
Homeless campaigner Sittiphol said state housing is normally inaccessible, impractical and incompatible with their ability to make a living.
“Those designed by the government have stripped away their freedoms. They’re closed spaces that don’t allow them to come and go freely,” he said. “They’re also very far away. Homeless people operate as a community to find jobs. They tell others in the group when they find one. Living in government housing will cut them off from both the community and job market.”
And none of the politicians had answers on how to fix the overcrowded and poorly maintained government shelters for the homeless, elderly and abandoned.
Sittiphol said the government has no policy to build more despite being at full capacity and in poor condition.
“The shelters are very packed, and the number of caretakers and residents are disproportionate,” he said. “Many have died waiting to get in.”
Future Forward’s Wanwipa said expansion of state welfare, which is the bottom plank of her party’s platform, would trickle down to ease inequality and improve the lives of the homeless.
“If we can boost the economy and employment, and make the ability to have a job, a place to live [and] study for free fundamental, I think the improvement would be able to reach all groups of people,” she said.
While long-term measures for sustainable solutions are much in need, Sittiphol said there are many issues that could be directly addressed to the immediate benefit of homeless lives, most of whom can’t afford to fill their stomachs three times a day and are neglected by the state.
“The most urgent matter is how to help them have a good life quality on a daily basis. Have three meals a day. Have a decent bed and bathroom. Just these things can remarkably improve a person’s life,” he said. “Isn’t it very cruel of the government to let the people it says are under its care continue to fall down? .. Why don’t we have a baseline quality of life that everyone deserves?”
Additional reporting Sunantha Buabmee