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By Steven Borowiec
SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) -- Mr. Kim is spending a cold night camped out in an underground walkway in central Seoul. Though the walkway has its own heating system, the cold outdoor wind still blows through and the sleeping bag Kim has laid out over the frigid rock floor provides only minimal comfort. Nearby there are shelters that would provide him with a heated room and something to eat, but Kim, 58, would rather stay out here.
He finds the shelters to be more uncomfortable, albeit in a different way.
"The shelters are like military barracks -- there's no privacy at all," Kim said. "At night there, people make lots of noise and often there are fights."
Though his circumstances in this underground walkway are far from ideal, Kim appreciates having enough space to stretch out and move around a bit. Here he doesn't have to listen to any conversations and can smoke if he feels like it. Though sleeping outside is tough, Kim is comforted by having a sense of control over his surroundings.
"Hope Room," a government-funded project meant to assist the homeless, is seeking to address this desire for privacy and autonomy in helping the homeless rebuild their lives. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people living on the streets of Seoul.
According to government data, the number of people sleeping outdoors in Seoul increased 2.6 times between 2011 and 2012, from 393 homeless at the end of June 2011 to 1,022 one year later. This is being attributed to economic difficulties faced by many working people. There are an estimated 3,300 homeless people in Seoul, including those who live in shelters.
One might not readily assume that the homeless, who often have to do without most basic needs like food and medical care, and who spend nearly all hours of the day in public with no fixed residence, would value privacy. But the founders of Hope Room insist that privacy is important to those living on the margins of society, and guaranteeing privacy could be instrumental to helping the homeless build the confidence required to get back on their feet.
The first step is providing a private room to each homeless person. Tenants pay 80,000 won (about US$74) up front to enter Hope Room's yearlong program. To rent out an apartment in Korea, a security deposit of at least several thousand dollars is required up front, which is an insurmountable obstacle for many with low incomes and no savings.
Tenants in the Hope Room program go through a three-stage rehabilitation process with the goal of becoming self-sufficient again. The program currently has 55 tenants in two different locations. They are given the chance to establish their own routines, instead of having to eat, sleep, come and go when someone else says. "Everyone has their own sleeping habits and lifestyle. It's hard to manage those when you have to share space with a bunch of other people," said Kim Uk, the director of Hope Room.
Inside Hope Room's center in western Seoul's Seodaemun district, the space is bright and clean, composed entirely of colors that are meant to be calming and easy on the eyes. Kim says the idea was to create an atmosphere that felt comfortable, like home. The doors to the rooms are all patterned with small squares in the style that is typical of apartment doors in Korea. The pattern was chosen to give the tenants the sense of possessing their own home.
Each room has a bed, a closet and a small desk. At 1.2 pyeong (about 3.5 square meters), there isn't room for much else. One wall in the room is covered with wallpaper patterned with the spines of books, most of which are training manuals for vocations such as advertising or design.
Interestingly, food is not provided, though refrigerators and cooking facilities are available.
Providing the space to cook but not providing food is in line with the project's goal of building self-sufficiency. "Our ultimate goal is to have them never go back out on the streets after they leave here," said Kim.
Prioritizing privacy could be one way of reducing the number of homeless in Seoul, as well as a small, symbolic measure that privacy is important in society more generally. Garret Keizer, the author of "Privacy" (Picador, 2012), argues that secure privacy, even for those on the margins, is a necessary part of the foundation for a successful society.
The change of perception hasn't been swift in Korea where living alone has been looked upon as unconventional. It isn't until more recently that government and marketing measures started to take notice of individuals living alone.
Nowadays in South Korea, more and more people are choosing to live alone, apparently motivated in part by a wish for privacy, to have a place where they feel let alone. As more Koreans put off marriage until their 30s and beyond, many young adults sometimes wish for the independence of adulthood instead of living with their parents until they get married.
According to projections by Statistics Korea, single person households will account for 25.3 percent of total households in 2013, up significantly from 15.5 percent in 2000. By 2035, this percentage is expected to rise to 34.3 percent.
"A healthy public life has its roots in a healthy experience of private life," Keizer explained in an email interview.
"Privacy can play a significant role in several ways, not the least of which is affirming the humanity of the homeless. Providing them with a modicum of privacy amounts to saying that their needs and rights are the same as those other, more fortunate members of society."
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