Portraits of Beijing's Homeless

No. 10

Hi there:

In this issue we source a second story from the popular podcast Story FM. In an episode that first aired on April 27, social worker Guo Yan Yihui offers detailed sketches of four of her homeless clients, a diverse cast of characters who took different paths to a life on the streets of the Chinese capital.

Now that the newsletter is up and running, I’m going to take a bit of time off for R+R. I’ll be back with a fresh translation in August.

Take care and see you soon!

ML


The Many Faces of Beijing’s Homeless

Narrator: Guo Yan Yihui

Transcribed by Xu Linfeng

On Aug. 17, 2015, an anxious-looking young lady sat in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, which was awash with tourists. “I’m from Xi’an. I want to go home,” she kept mumbling.

Pedestrians swept by, avoiding her warily. Eventually I reached her in the sea of people and helped her get in touch with a relief station for the homeless.

Her file at the relief station contains a sparse five characters: “Came to Beijing to meet online friends.”

She was my first client, a homeless person. Her blanket was in tatters, her hair dirty and messy and her hands covered in black dirt. But in reality, the stories of the homeless are much more complex than first impressions suggest.

My name is Guo Yan Yihui. According to the records at Hefeng, the social workers’ collective where I work, there are no fewer than 1,000 homeless people living within the three ring roads of central Beijing.

So as much as we pretend they don’t exist, whatever path we take, we are bound to keep running into them.

They might be agonizing over an unsold inventory of used goods or torn between the inability to find a job in one’s 60s and the shame of returning home unaccomplished. They may be enduring an empty stomach despite rummaging through every trash can on a street crammed with food stalls and restaurants or holed up in their bedding in an underground tunnel waiting for a grave injustice to be corrected. Or chanting mantras in front of a Buddhist temple day after day with utter clarity of mind.

Along with my colleagues, I’m tracking them down in the streets and alleys of Beijing every day, eager to hear their stories and help fulfill some of their wishes.

Gramps Fan

Gramps Fan gets a head shave and a change of clothes after reuniting with his father and uncle. Courtesy Story FM.

1.

The first time I met Gramps Fan he was begging by the electricity box on a certain major section of Pingan Alley.

“What are you doing here? Why are you here?” We tried to make conversation.

It was the usual small talk we tried on a homeless person we were approaching for the first time—and we received the typical response. Gramps ignored us. He didn’t know who we were, so he had reservations.

All we could do was leave a care package and leave. We prepare our own care packages. They each contain a fresh meal.

The routine continued for six months. We’d visit him every two weeks to deliver things that would come in handy. For example, on a rainy day, we brought a raincoat.

One day, Gramps Fan suddenly said to one of my male colleagues: “Hey kid, can you buy me a bottle of beer? Let’s have a drink.”

He would never say directly, “You’re a good person. I trust you.” But I knew he had finally let his guard down.

Yet the request put my colleague in a difficult spot. After all, social workers aren’t allowed to buy alcohol for their clients. He hesitated before relenting, not having the heart to deny this small request that we had waited six months for.

Little did we expect that also became the turning point in our relationship with Gramps Fan.

2.

There was a poor stretch of weather early last year, with heavy downfall a few days in a row. Gramps told us he wanted to go home.

The old fella stayed put every day, drinking to his heart’s content. How come he suddenly wanted to go home? We were baffled too.

Once he made the request, Gramps also came clean with his story. He told us he used to be a bricklayer, making a living with his craft. He was quite proud when he left his home village for Beijing.

But four or five years ago he injured one of his legs and couldn’t work anymore, so he started begging. His daily proceeds went to a bottle of sorghum liquor.

His bad leg kept on deteriorating. At first he could walk with a limp, but eventually he couldn’t manage the 200-meter stroll to the liquor store. He started to get scared.

We were delighted to hear Gramps Fan finally demand something concrete. We got in touch with a relief station immediately. The station could cover his travel expenses.

But when the staff of the relief station arrived, Gramps had changed his mind. We probed curiously, but Gramps wouldn’t talk. When we visited the next day, he still said he wanted to go home but wouldn’t move. He kept drawing circles on the ground with a stick, mumbling: “When I left I was the man of the hour. My buddies from the village were borrowing money from me left and right.”

We also cut to the chase, asking: “Gramps, are you too embarrassed to go home?”

Gramps went silent again.

When you can’t overcome your mental blocks, you lack the courage to act. But there are some challenges you must face alone. All we could do was keep him company and wait for him to make up his mind.

Empty liquor bottles filled up a corner and the air smelled like the spot where a physically handicapped person lingered, ate and took care of his bodily needs. We kept Gramps Fan company until the early evening.

He finally spoke. “This is the name of my village. Why don’t you ask my family if they’re willing to take me back.”

3.

After returning to our office, we immediately reached out to Gramps’ village. The village officials said they knew about him. They said Gramps Fan’s family was classified an impoverished household and had been receiving extra support. “If you need us to, we’re happy to pick him up,” one official said.

One party wanted to go home and the other was willing to provide pickup.

The next day the village officials drove from Zhangbei to Beijing to pick up Gramps.

Their ETA was 4 p.m. We arrived at 2 to keep Gramps company. As we waited, Gramps kept mumbling. Not knowing what to expect, he was a mix of anxiety, fear, guilt and anticipation. It was a genuine case of 100 mixed emotions.

When the group from Zhangbei arrived, it was already 5. We thought Gramps and his family would embrace and break down in tears after being separated for 10-plus years.

Gramps’ father and uncle got off the car. Even though they were in their 70s or 80s, they were still in good shape and walked briskly. After they laid eyes on Gramps, they didn’t utter a single word. All they did was fetch a basin and clippers and shave Gramps’ hair.

Behind the electricity box, these three men, three grown men—indeed, three old men—didn’t say a single syllable.

But tears started strolling down Gramps’ cheeks.

After having his head shaved, washing his face and a change of clothes, Gramps was transformed. Smart! It dawned on me for the first time that this supposed old man was perhaps only in his 50s.

After we confirmed with the village officials that Gramps would receive benefits after returning home, the group set off.

That night we received a short video clip from the village officials showing Gramps Fan smiling on his own bed. This case is closed, I thought to myself.

Lottery Ticket Brother

Courtesy Story FM.

1.

But not every homeless person has that kind of luck. Some are even dealt some cruel twists of fate, like Lottery Ticket Bro.

We call him “Lottery Ticket Bro” because he likes to buy lottery tickets, but he’s never bought a winning one.

Lottery Ticket Bro is a Beijing native. He grew up in a military family. He was the kind of kid who was heavily disciplined and subject to physical punishment. He was a good kid, but he never won his father’s approval.

What should have been a stable life was upended by a mistake he made when he was around 18 or 19.

It was the 1980s, during a major clampdown on crime when he was jailed for a failed robbery attempt. After he was released from prison, his family refused to take him in. Being his stubborn self, he left home and took odd jobs. But back then society was less tolerant and it was hard for an ex-con to find work. In the end, Lottery Ticket Bro began living on the streets and sifting through garbage for a living.

That was the kind of life he was living when I met him.

2.

On that day, he kept all his belongings in a knapsack that could double as a pillow in a long corridor near Heping Gate. His scavenging earned him 10 yuan (US$1.4) a day.

Knowing that it would take time to tackle his relationship with his family, we focused our efforts on improving his income. We motivated him by saying: “Brother, try to earn some money for a tricycle.”

He was good with people and knew the folks at the recycling station well, so he had a way of getting his hands on used items for a bargain. He spent some 100 yuan on a second-hand tricycle.

Armed with a tricycle, he quit rummaging through trash cans, collecting used cardboard from snack shops instead. He bought each piece for 10 cents, sold it for 20 and pocketed the difference.

He worked hard at scavenging, gradually raising his income to 30 or 40 yuan a day.

After a while, we told Lottery Ticket Bro: “You get bored from time to time, no? Here’s a radio. You can listen to it when you’re free.” Bro was delighted with the gift. To save homeless folks the trouble of finding a power source, our radio was of the manually cranked variety.

Soon Bro got fed up with the radio. “What is this manual crank business? It’s so much hassle. It runs out of battery so quickly.”

We seized the opportunity to prod: “Then why don’t you earn enough money for a smartphone? You can also watch videos that way.”

Bro pooled his savings from scavenging and spent 300 yuan on a used smartphone from one of our social workers, which was in good condition. We can’t always give homeless people handouts. It’s not good for them either.

After learning how to use a smartphone, Bro started studying the cash giveaways on various apps and started pocketing them one by one. His standard of living on the street was gradually improving.

3.

As hard as Lottery Ticket Bro scavenged, he could only take care of his basic needs. I kept brainstorming for ways to help him further.

I thought of minimum standard of living assistance. Lottery Ticket Bro was a Beijing resident. He should be entitled to benefits from his neighborhood government office.

I asked Bro: “Why don’t you try this?” Bro responded: “I’m going to pass. What if I go and they arrest me?”

His prison time had left a deep scar. Even though he hadn’t committed any more crimes, he was still scared of the government and any official organs.

Having known Bro for quite some time, I never considered him a hardened criminal. He was a kind, lovable and a bit of a timid person. Even if he had only 20 yuan, he was willing to spend 10 yuan on a pair of new slippers for another homeless person.

Just like he was afraid of going home, dealing with a government agency was also a mental block for Lottery Ticket Bro.

4.

Lottery Ticket Bro is already 50. The years on the street had taken its toll on his body—he was in worse shape than a regular person his age. We couldn’t bear seeing him continuing such a tough lifestyle, so we took him to many job interviews, from Yizhuang District in the south to Xiangshan in the west, from security guard posts to janitor gigs. He even gave some of these jobs a try, but none of them panned out because he couldn’t keep up physically.

Despite the many failures, after our relentless encouragement, Bro—someone who’s been terrified of the government half his life and never believed that good things happen to him—finally agreed to approach his local neighborhood government office.

During his first visit, officials confirmed that he was a local resident and found out that his older brother had transferred title of their family home to his daughter. An official said: “Don’t worry about standard of living assistance. Talk to your brother and gain control of the family flat. The apartment will be worth several million, no?”

Bro didn’t respond.

It’s heartbreaking to think that his parents didn’t want to see him before they passed. The thought didn’t even cross their mind. And he never found a second home, surviving on scavenging alone all these years while never taking any handouts.

It was precisely that resolve from 20 years ago that makes him reluctant to get back in touch with his family—let alone fight over family property.

5.

On a bright sunny day in October, we visited Bro’s local neighborhood office for a second time.

Bro rode his tricycle, all his earthly possessions in tow, from western Xicheng District to eastern Chaoyang District. When he saw me, he mumbled: “I’m nervous. I need to go to the bathroom,” before storming into the restroom.

When a staffer at the government office witnessed the scene, he pulled me aside and whispered: “Why are you helping someone like that? He definitely comes from money!” All I could do was flash an embarrassed smile.

When it was time to submit his formal application for standard of living assistance, Bro was grilled. “What did you used to do? You spent time in prison? What have you been up to the last 20, 30 years?” As if he was an idle bum who wanted to freeload off the government.

When we kept interjecting on his behalf, Bro sat silently. All he did was grumble to me in a low voice: “Who’s going to care about my grievances?”

Later on, in a conference room, the staff member processing his application patiently explained his concerns. How were they to investigate a homeless person’s living conditions? How would they track him down for an audit? What if this was a scam?

Even though these were legitimate concerns, Lottery Ticket Bro didn’t hold up much longer, blurting: “I had always been a good kid. Who knew that one mistake would land me in my current predicament, that the bad kids would fare better than me?”

It was painful to hear. I wanted to drag him outside and give him a hug.

Luckily, Bro successfully applied for minimum standard of living assistance. Meanwhile, we are still trying to get Bro a job.

Sedan Brother

Courtesy Story FM.

1.

Be it getting Gramps Fan home or improving Lottery Ticket Bro’s standard of living, we are constantly tracking down homeless people and trying to do something for them to the best of our ability.

Little did I expect that some of them just want to roam the streets.

That was the case for a man in his 30s or 40s I met near Youan Gate Bridge.

In popular imagination, homeless people are probably equipped with a worn bag, but this brother has a “sedan.”

The “sedan” is an augmented tricycle. Bro added a second tier. He used the lower tier for storage and the second tier served as his bed. Blankets, flashlight, a hanging clock—the tricycle was fully equipped with every gadget you could think of. He also had a yellow puppy about three or four months old. Bro said he spent 50 yuan on the puppy. He felt lonely and wanted a dog to keep him company.

The first time I saw him Sedan Bro was sitting on a small stool. Next to him lay an improvised stove refashioned from an empty paint can. Noodles were brewing. The puppy was lingering by his feet.

Bro had tiny eyes, which made him look mean when he didn’t smile, but he tended to smile whenever he spoke. If you ask him about his “sedan,” he’ll drop whatever he’s doing and brief you with pride.

“I’ll add the second tier when I sleep at night. My head is exposed, so I can breathe. During winters, I draw the curtain. All my possessions are stored in the bottom tier. My blankets, my food supplies—they’re all there. I can even read at night because I’ve attached a flashlight.”

2.

From our conversation I learned that Bro lost most of his family early on. He has a younger sister who married young. Ever the loner, he rides his tricycle wherever he pleases. His last stop was Shandong province. When we met, he had been in Beijing for more than a month.

Bro was willing to splurge on quality dog food for his puppy, saying: “It’s tough on him living with me. The least I can do is buy him something tasty.”

Bro is quite resourceful. He earns money by working odd jobs at Xinfadi, the massive fresh produce wholesale market. He’ll buy used clothes at a bargain, wash them in a moat and resell them to migrant workers at flea markets. During the recent National Day holiday, he bought a bunch of national flags and sold them to tourists at Tiananmen Square.

This is also a form of homelessness because Bro is still living on the streets. But because he’s comfortable with his lifestyle, we haven’t offered much assistance. Many homeless live a solitary existence, so we kept Bro company from time to time by making conversation. But about a month or two later Bro disappeared.

He must have moved onto to his next destination—a single person, a tricycle and a dog, taking on the world.

Godfather

Courtesy Story FM.

1.

Not all homeless people operate alone.

Those with similar backgrounds and grievances will cluster and demonstrate solidarity. This is especially common among so-called petitioners—ordinary citizens from around the country who have traveled to Beijing hoping that the central government will address injustices they believe they have suffered in their hometowns.

I once saw as many as 20 homeless people living together in an underground tunnel. They lobbied for their causes during the day while returning to the underground tunnel in the evening.

Our collective is nearly six years old. We’ve been tracking one of our clients for five years. He is also a petitioner. We call him Old Chen. The ladies call him godfather.

He has a daughter. Thirty years ago, he worked as an accountant in Yunnan province. His life was turned upside down when he suffered retaliation after reporting a boss for corruption. His wife took his daughter and left him. He was determined to seek redress in Beijing. Next thing you knew it had been 30 years. He hasn’t seen his daughter since.

That’s why he considers our female colleagues goddaughters.

Whenever passersby gift him Chinese dates or sweets, he saves them for us. For a brief period, I had stopped visiting him because of back pain. Colleagues who went in my place relayed the following message: “Your godfather was asking about you. He asked us to bring you some dates. We said you would pick them up yourself.” When I finally made the trip again, he was still very concerned about my health.

Whenever I visit, he’ll set aside his cleanest pouch and say: “This is your dad’s pillow. Sit here. It’s a clean spot.”

He’ll also keep glancing at his watch. After about half an hour, he’ll say: “Daughters, you’ve been here for more than half an hour. If you have other affairs to attend to, go ahead.”

Even though he very much enjoyed our company, he didn’t want to keep us from our other duties.

When we left, he would watch us walk into the distance.

Just like a father seeing off his daughters.

2.

Godfather has already given up on his own cause, but he still lives in an underground tunnel with some 20 others. He’s in poor health—the left side of his body is partly paralyzed—but he’s smart and knowledgeable. He helps other homeless people with their petition statements, using his right hand.

The others fetch him boiled water and food in return. They look out for each other.

Apart from certain appointments like meetings, his life is quite carefree. He’s always looked after. Still, in any group there are bound to be problems. Even in a small community like that, there are dark undercurrents.

Another petitioner, Sister Fang, was once courted by a homeless man.

Sister Fang refused, but lo and behold, the man tried to rape her. On the spur of the moment, Sister Fang pulled out a cutting knife and waved it. The man fled.

After that, Sister Fang moved solo to a spot by a bridge near the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration. She keeps a knife in her comforter as a matter of habit. “If they come after me again, I’ll kill them,” she said. Out of consideration for the practical needs of homeless women, we sourced vice alarms and condoms for them in the hopes that they will offer a final line of protection if they are sexually assaulted.

Apart from that, our collective has also obtained funding for various projects like creating basic personnel files for the homeless and offering health checkups. We’ve also embedded university students with the homeless in two-day camps and organized a robot soccer competition between the homeless and Beijing residents. The idea is for them to talk to each other and offer them a glimpse of a different life.

In the nearly six years of our existence, Hefeng has handled some 190 cases. Sometimes we have met the needs of our homeless clients and it’s a happy ending.

But in many cases, I meet the client just once or twice and they disappear just when I sort out their story. I never see them again.

We are companions in an extremely rough and tumultuous part of their life journey. Along the way, some people get lost. Sometimes we stumble along with our clients. Sometimes we survive the ordeal.

Social workers aren’t omnipotent.

Our simple goal is that homeless people don’t suffer so much—to at least improve their lives a little bit.

We hope our presence and companionship will make you feel that we still have your back, we still care about you and we haven’t abandoned you.