Homeless Center in Chiang Mai

On June 28, 2018, a big crowd gathered to celebrate the opening of the new Chiang Mai Homeless Center, including the Minister of Social Development and Human Security and ministry staff, the vice mayor of Chiang Mai and city council members, the CODI director and staff, support NGOs, community network leaders from other cities, homeless network members from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and a big group of homeless people from Chiang Mai.  After the visiting dignitaries are taken on a tour of the new center, everyone gathers down in the courtyard, where marquees have been set up, for the speeches and awards.  These are Tom’s rough notes from the inauguration ceremony:

The new center building:  The 2-story C-shaped building is arranged round a big courtyard which is shaded by a great big centuries-old rain tree (ton kampoo) that has been carefully preserved in the design.  The main block on each floor is divided up into partitions for homeless singles, couples and families to stay, with bathrooms, meeting rooms and generous balconies on each floor.  Lots of windows and good cross ventilation everywhere.

  • Building process used to improve building skills: For the heavy excavation and concrete structure of the building, a local contractor was hired, but to bring down construction costs, a lot of the labor and finishing work was done by homeless people themselves.  The building’s design, which was developed by homeless network members themselves, with help from CODI’s community architects, included a patchwork of wall construction systems, so the homeless people could learn how to build with different materials (brick masonry, plastering, wood, bamboo and recycled bits and pieces), so they could get construction work jobs later.  This construction training was conducted by community builders (chang chumchon) teams from sister networks in Chiang Mai.
  • Spaces for singles and families, partitioned and not-partitioned: The spacious living areas on two floors have some areas that are left open, without partitions (separate areas for men and women) and some areas that are partitioned-off, for families, singles or couples.  That way, the center can provide a variety of shelter options for people, according to what they are comfortable with.
  • Roof garden: On the third floor, a big roof terrace is being used for raising vegetables, in a project they are calling “Finding Green.”
  • Cafe and bakery: The network wanted their center to be a place that is open and welcoming to everyone – not just the people who live there.  So when they were planning the new center, they decided to include a cafe and bakery on the ground floor.  The cafe will generate income for the center and also function as a place to train bakers and baristas.
  • Spaces for income-generation activities, like making tie-dyed clothing, community enterprises to make organic fertilizer, soap and washing-up liquid.

Homeless leader, Khun Narin, speaks:  We homeless people have gathered together as a network for 11 years now in Chiang Mai.  We also link with homeless networks in Khon Kaen and Bangkok.  We hope to make an MOU with the Minister to support us and carry on this good effort to help other homeless people in Thailand.  We appreciate that all of you have come to celebrate with us this important milestone in our development, as we open this new homeless center in Chiang Mai.

  • We started 11 years ago by gathering in public areas, in parks and along the street, and began discussing with each other our ideas about how to have a better life. We made a trip to Bangkok to see the homeless network’s center in Taling Chan, and came back determined to work hard to build our network in Chiang Mai.  When I saw that homeless center in Bangkok, it changed my thinking totally:  it’s not possible to live alone in the street as homeless people any more – we need to find a way to work together and live together and support each other.
  • “Walking with coffee” After the Bangkok trip, we began organizing an activity where we would go around at night to talk with homeless people in the places they tended to sleep or gather, and invite them to a nightly meeting, with coffee, at 6 PM, outside the city’s Tha Phae Gate.  This was our chance to hear each other’s stories, share information about what kind of services are available and find ways to support each other.
  • Started to plan our own center in Chiang Mai. Ever since that trip to Bangkok, we have wanted to make our own homeless center here in Chiang Mai.  We started to look for possible land and to negotiate with the local government, but land in this city is very expensive.  We did find a small house to rent and set up a temporary shelter there, but the people in that neighborhood didn’t like having us there and we didn’t feel secure.  And because the place was so small, most homeless people continued to sleep on the street, not in the shelter.  We needed a more proper and more permanent shelter.  We demonstrated for government support during the Abhisit government, and the prime minister agreed to support our shelter plans, but the money never came.  So we demonstrated again, and a few years ago, the current government allotted a budget of 180 million baht (US$ 5.5 million) for homeless centers in 3 cities.  So we could finally buy this land and start planning our center.
  • This was private land, and it cost 26 million baht (US$ 797,900). The land is owned by the homeless network.
  • The building cost 5 million baht (US$ 152,000), and we are very proud of it because we all helped with all the planning and worked on the construction every single day, making progress little by little, until the building is now 90% finished. We will keep working on it.
  • Today we are proud to show show you what we can do, and to give our big thanks to the Ministry and CODI and our friends in the Human Settlements Foundation for supporting us, and for all of you coming to celebrate with us today. We hope the center will help solve the problems of the homeless in Chiang Mai and will help give a better future to people who live in the streets.

We have decided to name our new center Baan Tuem Faan  (“House of Fulfilled Dreams”)

Another homeless leader speaks:  This new center is not just a place to sleep, but a place where all the homeless people in Chiang Mai can gather and support each other to find their way to a better life.  As we’ve seen in the Bangkok shelter, we hope that after staying in this shelter for a while, our homeless people can also build up their strength and be able to go out and have a normal life and make their own housing some day.

  • Rules and regulations in the new center: In the Bangkok shelter in Taling Chan, their rule is that people can stay up to six months, and after that they have to stand up by themselves.  We decided we don’t want to have that rule here, and people can stay as long as they need to.  But when newcomers come to the shelter, they can stay in the area on the ground floor with no partitions.  After they stay a while, learn to live here with the others and commit to the process of supporting each other, they can move upstairs, to a partitioned space.
  • Savings: We also have our own savings program, for people who live in the center and those who still live in the streets.
  • Waste recycling: A lot of the homeless people in Chiang Mai earn a little income by collecting, sorting and selling recyclable waste.  The new homeless center has a waste-sorting area on the side of the building and on the 25th of every month, all the materials are sorted and sold.  Part of the profit goes into the member’s savings, and part is used to support the center.
  • Welfare fund: Homeless people have lots of health problems, many are elderly and crippled, and so one of the important things the homeless network does is manage its own welfare fund, to help with clinic visits and medicines, to which every member contributes 3 baht a day, or 150 baht ($5) per month.

Giving of House Registration papers:  One of the big problems of having no legal address is that homeless people cannot get house registration papers.  These documents are like a citizenship document and enable people to access the Thai government social programs like public health care, schools, access to public amenities like metered water and electricity.  After the speeches by the two homeless leaders, officials from the local government formally grant house registration documents to the residents of the new center.

Award-giving:  Awards are then given by the Minister for the network with the best saving, and three people get brand new electric fans as awards for “best participation in savings and participation”

The Minister for Social Development and Human Security speaks:  I have heard that the project of making this new center has been a very long and difficult one, and I am happy to be here to appreciate what you have done.   The homeless are our most vulnerable citizens.  Like all of us, they have needs and they need a home.  It is important that you have come together and found the way to meet those basic human needs using your own strength and your own togetherness.  I can feel your commitment and your strength today, and it shows others that the homeless want to develop themselves and make a better life.  Our ministry is happy to have the opportunity to support your work.

  • It’s good that your center is open to everyone in the area, and good that you are helping to open up the issue of homelessness to our society.
  • It is also very important that you have your own committee and have set your own systems to govern yourselves and to set your own voluntary rules for the center, so you can live well together. That is something that is very important for our society, to live together happily – that is what I think of as being a real community, and ideal for Thailand.  Our government keeps writing more and more laws, but I don’t know why?  I feel we should reduce the laws and support the people to set up their own rules and regulations, as you have done.  I know your center here will inspire others.  And if your rules and regulations don’t work, you can adjust them.  This center has no fences around it, and it allows freedom to people who live here – but with that freedom comes responsibilities to share, to participate, to follow the agreed-upon rules.
  • I appreciate so much how you have used recycled materials and your own labor and participation to keep the cost of the building very low. And I appreciate the roof garden – I am a village boy and I like this idea of growing your own vegetables up on the roof very much.
  • I know that the homeless network in Khon Kaen has gotten the land, but not yet started building their center.
  • Keep going. The more you work together, the more CODI and the Ministry will help and keep listening to you.  Now we know that 5.7 million people are still homeless or living in squatter settlements in Thailand.  So we still have a lot of work to do together to make sure these people have secure homes too.  Thank you and happiness to all of you.  (The minister and his entourage are accompanied to their vans by a group of young men in traditional Lanna dress beating drums)