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[Subway Stories] Seoul Station, hub of mass transit and home of the homeless

Feces controversy is only the latest in headaches related to the homeless residing at nation’s largest and busiest station

Feb. 21, 2022 - 16:29 By Yoon Min-sik
A view of Seoul Station, South Korea’s biggest transit hub, on Wednesday. Next to the modern station in the back is the old Seoul Station building with a blue domed roof, which is now the Culture Station 284, a multipurpose arts and cultural complex. The area in front of the buildings, widely referred to as the Seoul Station Plaza, are partly occupied by makeshift COVID testing booths, a construction site for the new high-speed rail line Great Train Express-A, and temporary shelters for the homeless. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Seoul Subway Stories is a newly launched Korea Herald series exploring the subway stations and surrounding areas across the city. The following is the first installment – Ed.

Seoul Station has been a major transport hub in the country since its birth in 1900, its historical and practical significance making it a landmark of the city. 

But for decades, the station authorities, the pedestrians, and the homeless have been locked in a three-way battle that was recently further smeared by a controversy over feces.

On Jan. 18, civic group Homeless Action held a press conference in front of Seoul Station decrying the Seoul Metro’s station-wide notice warning against homeless people defecating or urinating inside the facilities. They claimed it was insulting and that it stigmatized the homeless.

Seoul Metro took down the notices upon complaints but said there have been multiple daily complaints over feces and stench, with surveillance footage pointing to the homeless as culprits.

One may not notice that the station has a homeless issue without stepping outside the terminal buildings.

Linking the country’s bullet-speed KTX, regular railroads as well as subways and airport express trains, the station is the country’s busiest transport hub, which used to get around 120,000 visitors daily in 2019, before the pandemic began. 
A few dozen tents, provided by local aid groups for the homeless as a cold weather shelter and for self-isolation in case of COVID-19 infection, are seen near Seoul Station. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Pigeons flock outside one of the tents installed for the homeless by local groups near Seoul Station. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
It is the plaza outside station buildings where most of the homeless people can be spotted.

Since 2011, the station has banned homeless people from sleeping inside its facilities at night, defying opposition from human rights groups. The decision still stands, leaving at least the indoor areas homeless-free, but people walking past the plaza to bus stops or to surrounding areas still encounter them on a regular basis.

“It’s quite threatening. It doesn’t really matter if they aren’t doing anything, but it can get scary when they start fighting, shouting, or wandering around drunk,” said 50-year-old housewife Kim Soo-yeon.

Aside from creating what many view as unsightly or intimidating scenes, real crimes involving homeless people at Seoul Station are rare. They do occur though. Earlier in January, a 40-something man was taken into custody for beating a homeless man in his 50s to death, with whom he had been drinking at the time of the crime. 
Homeless people haul a cart of cardboard scrap near Seoul Station on Wednesday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
It is unclear how Seoul Station became the country’s homeless mecca, although many suspect the economic crisis of the late 1990s played a large part.

In early 1998, Jeong Won-oh, professor of social welfare at Sungkonghoe University, released a study that showed the number of homeless people in Seoul Station increased to around 500, up drastically from 20 to 30 the year before. It also showed that over 90 percent of them went homeless within one year, indicating that they had fallen victim to the economic crisis.

While the number is believed to have reached north of 2,000 at one point according to the state-run think tank Seoul Institute, it drastically decreased in the following years, due in part to support measures including shelters.

Rep. So Byung-hoon of the Democratic Party in 2018 released a Seoul city statistic that tallied the number of homeless at Seoul Station to 129.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic and sub-zero temperatures have driven the number of homeless even further down in recent months. Despite this, there are still dozens of homeless people around the station at any given time along with entailing complaints from citizens.

But the homeless and their advocates say they are merely fighting to stay alive.

With the shortage in homeless shelters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some civic groups have installed tents in the plaza. Dozens of tents around the station is designated for isolating the infected homeless, while also providing shelters for others.

Jeong Chang-deok, who leads the “New Santa” campaign for the underprivileged which donated some 30 tents, stressed the need for a government policy that provides medical need and shelter for the homeless, who tend to be more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Today, the plaza of Seoul Station is shared by the homeless’ tents, makeshift COVID testing booths and a construction site for a new generation of high-speed rail lines called GTX, short for the Great Train eXpress.

Between the authorities, the pedestrians, and the homeless, no one is fully satisfied with the current situation, culminating in an odd tension that hovers around the nation’s gateway railroad station. 
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