What you need to know
A volunteer group is using free food to break down misconceptions about the homeless in Taipei.
Home, they say, is where the heart is. But for those without a roof over their head, home is where you can best make ends meet. For a great many of Taipei’s homeless, that place is Taipei Main Station and its surroundings.
Renowned as Taipei’s largest transportation hub, the station serves a secondary purpose – a place for many of the city’s homeless to get some respite.
Prohibited from sleeping within the station, the homeless have no choice but to set up directly outside. Amid the winter chill, individuals and families huddle in spaces no larger than the deconstructed boxes which form both their floor and bed, making do with what the few belongings they can call their own.
It is, to say the least, a challenging life. But one small yet resourceful social enterprise called "Do You a Flavor" (人生百味) is determined to make a difference to the lives of Taipei’s homeless, one meal at a time.
It all began in 2014, when Chu Kuan-chen (朱冠蓁), Wu Yan-de (巫彥德), and Chang Shu-huai (張書懷) attended a Sunflower Movement protest. In a moment that would inspire the beginnings of their work for the homeless, they saw some protesters rebuff a homeless woman who had asked for one of the buns which were to be donated to the protesters.
Given that the quantity of buns far exceeded the number of protesters, the three founders saw this as an injustice that needed fixing. They proceeded to take some of the buns and distribute them to people in the area surrounding Longshan Temple, known as Mengxia Park (艋舺公園), where a high concentration of the city’s homeless congregate.
As they shared the buns, they chatted with the homeless, learning their personal stories and varied reasons for ending up on the streets. Realizing that they could work together to make a real contribution to their lives, they decided to establish Do You A Flavor.
Stone Soup: A new approach to helping the homeless
Do You a Flavor has chosen to take a quality-over-quantity approach to their initiatives, running only a handful of programs in the few years it has been operating.
One initiative that has enjoyed sustained success is “Stone Soup” (石頭湯計畫), an innovative social initiative which elevates the idea of simply distributing food.
To find out more, I attended a special training session held to prepare a core group of volunteers for Stone Soup’s special series of Chinese New Year events.
“During Stone Soup events, we don’t just provide homeless people with food, we also talk to them,” head organizer Chen Ying-jie (陳盈婕) tells me. She is accompanied by team members Nien Yuan-fang (粘沅芳), Tsen Chia-hsin (岑家忻), Lin I-ting (林依婷), Chung Ya-fang (鐘雅芳), Henri Lu (呂三際) and Yan Pei-Jiun (顏培峻).
Stone Soup recognizes that contributing positively to homeless people’s lives involves much more than simply providing them with the resources to survive – it’s also about giving them a chance to tell their story and really listening to what they have to say.
The group also hopes that by meaningfully engaging with the homeless, harmful stereotypes can begin to change. Chen says, “Everyone has their own reason for becoming homeless… and really, anyone could become homeless.”
So how does a Stone Soup event come together? Once or twice a month, volunteers team up with a number of local market stalls to collect “ugly vegetables” – those in too bad shape to be sold commercially. They then head to Nanjirice, a community organization in Wanhua District, to cook all of the collected produce, as well as donated items like rice and noodles. Finally, the food is packed into lunch boxes and freshly served outside Taipei Main Station to as many homeless people as possible.
That, however, is just one half of the story. Equally important are the connections that take place as volunteers and homeless share hearty food and conversation.
Homeless in Taipei
During the training session, Ying-jie guided us around Taipei Main Station, making pit stops at what initially seemed like unremarkable places within the station. Our first stop was the station car park, which Ying-jie pointed out was once a sleeping ground for many homeless until they were kicked out.
Next, we stopped at some station lockers, and heard about how the homeless were previously required to put their belongings in station lockers for safekeeping whenever they left the station grounds. “But at NT$40 (US$1.37) to rent a small locker for only three hours, the price was too expensive for them to afford,” she explains, “Not to mention how the station guards would often mistake their belongings for trash and throw them away.”
Continuing on, we heard example after example of the difficulties the homeless encounter, such as how they must uproot every time the outside floors get washed and how station guards will wake anyone caught lying down outside before 9 or 10 p.m.
While the station certainly has problems, it also has its advantages, offering convenient access to toilets, drinking fountains, transport, the presence of station guards and offers of irregular work such as sign holding and pamphlet distribution.
In the process of the journey I became aware of how the homeless experience cannot be understood at face value.
Those of us who have never experienced homelessness can only picture to a certain extent just how challenging it is. We’re stilted by our own privilege, making it difficult to think outside the comfort of our four walls and roof until we make a concerted effort – which is precisely what makes Stone Soup’s focus on learning from, listening to and supporting the homeless so powerful.
Homelessness is an issue that affects society as a whole – to be truly functional for the good of all its members, the most vulnerable need to be adequately supported.
While it would be impossible for a grassroots organization to help all of the nearly 600 registered homeless people in Taipei and the thousands more believed to be on the streets, Do You a Flavor and Stone Soup have shown that a serving of good food and good conversation is a step in the right direction.
If you would like to learn more about Stone Soup or join in on an event, head to their Facebook group here.
Editor: TNL staff