Homeless, Not Heartless

Natee Saravari in an undated photo.

Re•tention: Pravit Rojanaphruk

April 11 saw the untimely death of a prominent advocate for the homeless and the dispossessed, a great loss to those communities and those who care about the less fortunate.

Natee Saravari, 48, founder of the Issarachon Foundation, had a unique outlook that went beyond philanthropy. In a long conversation I had with him two years ago, the activist who suffered from a stroke last year made it clear that his work wasn’t just engaging in philanthropy or giving handouts.

More than just a soup kitchen – which the foundation is continuing after his death – Natee advocated for public understanding of the homeless and street people, not as faceless statistics, but fellow human beings with specific stories and needs.

Natee pointed out that some of these people have homes to go back to but choose not to due to toxic family relations. Others chose a free lifestyle of being a street wanderers. Thus, merely rounding them up inside a government-run homeless shelter would not have solved the problem.

Natee advocated for understanding each homeless person as an individual with a particular story to tell. He spent a copious amount of time talking to them and knowing them by name. He attentively listened to their stories with empathy.

He insisted that there can be no shortcuts or panaceas, as each individual’s solutions may require specific and long term solutions such as mending family relations that sent them out into the street to begin with.

While calling for more attention and budget to handle the 3,000 plus street people, Natee called for members of the public to assist them on an equal basis as fellow human beings.

He encouraged people who assisted street people to get to know them as individuals at the soup kitchen at Klong Lod, next to Sanam Luang.

There will always be a debate on whether the homeless and the unemployed deserve assistance – from both the state and the public. Some see the homeless and the unemployed as people who chose not to make a living but opted for a life of irresponsibility.

Such endeavor is also not unlike missionary work for it never ends and requires faith in humanity.

To this writer, such view has its merit. However, by assisting those in need, one also expresses care for people with the best of intentions instead of summarily judging them as people who do not deserve sympathy. By doing so, we convey to them that we care, no matter what.

Thai society needs more people like Natee who devoted themselves to a single difficult issue and tackled it deep to the core. That requires both passion and commitment – something which is becoming rare in a society where people are bred to find the safest and best paying job.

Without Natee, Issarachon Foundation is currently run by his wife Adchara and colleagues. It’s unclear how the foundation will fare without the man who has devoted two decades to the cause, making us see the homeless and street people as fellow citizens and as equal to us.