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Meeting China's New Homeless

China, May 21, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps

In the past week, the homeless population of China has jumped by almost five million people. Shelters varying in quality from REI-style pop tents to curtains of blue tarp tied to trees are everywhere you look in Sichuan Province. They line the sides of roads, fill stadiums, and congregate under bridges. I even saw one elderly man reclining in a lawn chair on a highway toll plaza, seemingly oblivious to the traffic whizzing by him.

Today we set out to meet some of China's new homeless and hear their stories.

We first visited a large temporary shelter camp — a kind of tent city — in Dujiangyan county. Set up by the Chinese military, this crowded field of 500 blue tents houses approximately 3,000 people.

We met a group of people peeling and chopping vegetables near the entrance to the camp. They told us with pride that the army built these tents all in one night. Each family receives food and cooks on its own — woks and makeshift stoves abound — and soon a large kitchen facility will be built. They say they have adequate bathrooms, though a glance at the bathroom tells a different story. There are, however, no showers.

I asked if any of them knew each other before living in such close confines. "No, we are new friends." replied one woman, smiling.

But not everyone in the tent camp is wearing a smile. We ran into several women who expressed deep worry. "The government is providing food and water for us now, but what will we do in the future?" one woman asked us. "I don't have money to buy a new house, and I can't grow crops in my field any more."

Outside of the tent area, a provincial government agency has set up a station where displaced people can register to find work. Information on people and their skills is collected, and information from employers and their needs is being gathered at the same time. Hopefully there will be matches, but the process could take months.

I met 45-year-old Wang Fuqin as she stood in line to sign up for work. She hasn't had a job in 15 years but the quake, which heavily damaged her home, has sent her back to the employment line. She explained that she and her husband must take care of their extended family of twelve. "I can just do housework, nothing else," she told me. "Going to work is the only way for me. The government can't help us forever."

Just a few kilometers away is a temporary housing development being erected by Chengdu Jiangong Corporation. Working with donated materials and time, the team of 100 workers and many volunteers expects to build thousands of temporary homes in just 20 days. Each home will be a room of 15 square meters, and each group of 20 homes will share a kitchen, toilet and shower. They are said to be earthquake resistant.

We talked to a 22-year-old graduate student, Wang Senwei, who is interning with the company. He told us that Chengdu Jiangong has halted all other construction projects to focus on helping earthquake survivors. "After the earthquake, many of us were disappointed that we couldn't be on the front lines doing rescue work," he said. "This development provides us the opportunity to directly help earthquake survivors."

We left the scene hopeful for China's new homeless but knowing that much more has to be done to help these people build new lives.