For founder, good intentions but a tough sell
When Cyndi Tseng ( ) traveled to London in the spring of 2013, she took part in an “Unseen Tour” guided by a homeless person that changed her perspective on life.
Instead of being taken to popular tourist spots, the Taiwanese IT worker was led through little alleys and listened to the guide talk about issues facing the underprivileged and his own life experiences.
“I felt the approach was so creative that when I returned to Taiwan I discussed the idea with my friends on Facebook. I couldn’t sleep that night,” she recalls.
She was later introduced to Chang Hsien-chung ( ), a man long dedicated to serving the homeless in Wanhua District in Taipei, and her London experience started to take shape at home.
With Chang’s help and the resources of Wanhua Community College and charitable organization Homeless Taiwan (
), she created a tourism class catering to the homeless and set up an organization called “Hidden Taipei” ( ) patterned after the “Unseen Tour” concept.
Despite her best intentions, Tseng and her program have faced unexpected challenges.
“In the beginning, we were a group of strangers, with no mutual trust at all. I was stood up by A-ho three times. But he dared not do that to me later, because he knew I was serious,” Tseng said of one of the few homeless students who successfully made it through the program.
Chang said that because of his long experience with the homeless, he knew who had a chance of making the grade.
“The first condition is not to shy away from people. Then you have to be able to express yourself clearly and have your own views on a lot of things,” he said.
The homeless attended the class largely because of Chang’s influence and were curious about what the program was about.
The teachers at Wanhua Community College said, however, that they had trouble getting the students to adapt to the structured classes.
Hsu Pao-yueh ( ), one of those who taught the classes at Wanhua Community College, said she got angry in the beginning and was forced to “put my foot down and tell them not to drink before coming to class and not to smoke in class.” Another teacher, Lu Ching-yen
), echoed her words. “They are used to living as they like, and it was tough to rein in the ‘wild-horse’ homeless in class,” Lu said.
In the first part of the course, the “students” tour heritage sites to increase their cultural and historical knowledge and hone their ability to express themselves clearly .
In the second part, they are encouraged to share their own experiences as homeless people.
After a six- month nurturing period, three homeless people passed an evaluation and began to serve as tour guides in July 2014.
These special tours charge NT$300 (US$9.7) per tourist, with 60 percent of the proceeds going
( to the guides and the remaining 40 percent covering miscellaneous costs.
Nearly 2,000 people, including student groups, enterprises and even overseas visitors, have registered to take part in “Hidden Taipei” tours over the past year, which have given the homeless a lifeline and changed perspectives.
“We originally thought that the homeless represent the group that has contributed the least to society, but we now can appreciate their helplessness and hardships,” said Lin Chi-tang ( ), a professor at Shih Chien University who took his students on one of the tours.
According to government statistics, there are around 3,000 homeless in Taiwan averaging 55 years old.
Often armed with little more than primary school educations, they are limited to doing manual labor and earn relatively low wages.
“The public has a lot of negative views about the lowest echelon of society, or those who are impoverished or homeless, thinking that they don’t work or don’t make enough effort,” Chang said.
He stressed, however, that many of them have become homeless because they have been sidelined by vocational injuries or find that their skills are no longer in demand as Taiwan’s economy becomes less dependent on construction and manufacturing.
With proper counseling, the homeless can make their way back into society, Chang insisted, and he said the program is now soliciting new blood based on the successful model of the three cases.