This edited article from Weerawat Somnuk is from The Isaan Record, Thailand's independent news site, and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content sharing agreement.
Homeless people are the most vulnerable in the city of Khon Kaen, a poor urban population in northeast Thailand, a study by Khon Kaen University concluded. How are these people coping with the COVID-19 outbreak, and what measures is the Government taking to protect the most vulnerable members of society?
According to the Khon Kaen Homeless Protection Center, there are 83 homeless people in the city. But COVID-19 has left many unemployed and on the streets, complicating the estimate of homeless people. The Thai Chamber of Commerce predicted in March 2020 that the current crisis could leave seven million people without employment, almost 10% of Thailand's total population.
Nattawut Krompakdee a coordinator for Friends of the Homeless, a charity group, commented on this:
Homeless people are probably less at risk of COVID-19 infection, compared to other groups of people because they don't meet many people on a regular basis. Also because of their personality: they don’t usually mingle with other people. But if one of them gets infected, there is a high chance that the virus will spread among other homeless people.
Homeless people probably have a lower risk of COVID-19 infection compared to other groups because they are not related to many people. Due to their personality, they do not mix with other people. But if one of them is infected, there is a great possibility of an outbreak among other homeless people.
Friends of the Homeless along with various government agencies, such as the Office of Human Security and Social Development in Kaen Khon, and the Indigenous Protection Center of the same city, have been in charge of distributing food to homeless people and informal workers in the city.
The Khon Kaen railway station has become a meeting point for many homeless people in the city. Many lived along the railway. But in 2016, the Thai Railway Company (SRT) demolished many houses as part of the double track project.
Unlike the middle class, the homeless and the low-income have little access to information on how to protect themselves before a public health crisis. Nattawut said:
They don't have access to tools that can prevent them from getting COVID-19, such as masks, hand sanitizer, clean water, and even a place to quarantine themselves.
They do not have access to tools to protect themselves from COVID-19, such as face masks, hand sanitizer, clean water, or even a place to quarantine.
Prevention measures to stop the virus outbreak have affected their lives. The Governor of Khon Kaen ordered the temporary closure of venues, schools, theaters and other venues on March 18, which paralyzed the public life of the city. Nattawut explained:
Flea markets, fresh markets, supermarkets, and small enterprises are a main source of income for homeless people. When those places closed or cut jobs, informal and day laborers lost their income and ran out of food for themselves and their families.
Street and fresh produce markets, supermarkets and small businesses are the main source of income for the homeless. When these places close, the informal people who live from day to day are left without income for their food and their families.
Another place where these people spend the night is the altar in the city temple in the center. The area is illuminated at night, and that gives them a feeling of security.
Sonsiri Wippraset, 25, a native of Udon Thani, in the north of the country, has been sleeping in the area since he was fired from his job as an air conditioning technician in Bangkok. I only had enough money for a train trip to Khon Kaen.
He explains that he has a house in Udon Thani, but due to family problems he decided to stay in Khon Kaen, where he has found a community of homeless people who share the same fate.
Despite making friends with other homeless people, Sonsiri has not yet learned of the government's help to those affected by COVID-19. Although you would like to sign up to receive the 5000 baht (156 US dollars) compensation money, you have no information on how to do so:
Since I didn't have enough money to go home, I decided to become a homeless person and stay here.
I had never heard of COVID-19 before. I just learned about it in the news but I don't know what the symptoms are like. I'm scared. I protect myself by wearing masks that are being handed out, but sometimes I don't wear one because it feels uncomfortable.
I don't have an ID card right now. I don't know how I lost it, and the homeless people in this area have not heard of this policy. Right now we want to survive by getting a job.
Since I didn't have enough money to go home, I decided to be homeless and stay here.
I've never heard of COVID-19 before, I just knew something on the news but I don't know what the symptoms are. I'm scared, I protect myself with the masks they give us, but sometimes I don't use them because they are uncomfortable.
I don't have an ID card at the moment. I don't know how I lost it, and the homeless in this area have not heard of this rule. Right now we want to survive with a job.
Khon Kaen Township has been working to serve the needs of the homeless for several years. Pongsapat Saengpitoon, an official with the Office of Social Development and Human Security in Khon Kaen, mentions that the city has a policy of looking after the most vulnerable and ensuring that they are not left behind in the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have a project in collaboration with the private sector called, “Pun Kun Im, which brings high-quality, clean, and safe food to homeless people and those who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak every Monday at the Khon Kaen railway station.
We have a project in collaboration with Pun Kun Im, a private association that brings premium food to homeless people and those who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak, every Monday at the Khon Kaen railway station.
There are also two shelters in the city for these people, such as the Center for the Protection of the Homeless under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, and also Ban Home Saen Suk, run by the private sector and which houses about one hundred people.
Khaek, 52, lives in the shelter of the Homeless Protection Center. She lived on the streets before the shelter adopted her.
Normally, the center allows them to stay up to 15 days, since it can only accommodate 10 to 15 people. But since Khaek has breast cancer they have allowed him to stay longer.
I have to undergo treatment at Khon Kaen Center Hospital once or twice a month. There, I noticed that the staff were very strict in detecting COVID-19, so it made me more alert.
I have to undergo treatment at Khon Kaen Hospital once or twice a month. There I noticed that the personnel was very strict in detecting COVID-19, this made me more alert.
There are currently eight people housed at the Center, says Chansak Khukhirikhet, a shelter worker. Those who live there are required to wear masks, keep a distance of one or two meters between them and avoid contact to prevent the virus from spreading.
In addition to local projects in Khon Kaen, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has implemented measures to help people affected by the outbreak of the virus through the program called “No Thai Left.”
The program provides free food and accommodation for unemployed and homeless people, especially during the 10 p.m. curfew. 4 a.m. Those who wish to use the service are encouraged to use the phone lines for more information.