Bangkok’s elderly homeless populations are still affected by the pandemic

Ruea, 65, became homeless about losing her business during the pandemic.

Ruea, 65, became homeless about losing her business during the pandemic. Photo and caption by Prachatai. Used with permission.

This article by Sarah Eichstadt was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand. An edited version has been republished by Global Voices under a partner content-sharing agreement.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangkok's homeless population has been rising. Many of these newly unhoused people are elderly. Advocates and experts now say raising the elderly pension is one solution to this growing crisis. Meanwhile, imposing a wealth tax could help combat housing insecurity.

When the pandemic hit, Ruea, 65 lost her business and only source of income, pushing her into financial and housing insecurity.

Before COVID-19, she made a living independently selling homemade products on Khao San Road, a major tourist destination in Bangkok, and was able to support her needs. But the pandemic suddenly made this type of work impossible.

A Bangkok Post article found a 30 percent rise in the. city's homeless population in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic rates.

Even though tourism is rising again in Bangkok, Ruea does not have enough money or resources to restart her business. She finds new places to sleep each night, sometimes staying with friends, other times alone. Ruea says that sometimes she feels vulnerable and unsafe when she is alone at night.

While a lot of people who struggled with housing during the pandemic are now housed, the need is still large. Welfare policies, gentrification and employment are factors that contribute to homelessness in Bangkok.

Pension for the elderly

Like many other elderly people in Bangkok, Reua's only source of income is a monthly THB 600 (USD 16.7) pension from the government. This is not enough income for her to afford housing. To help herself get by, she will line up to take one of the 500 free meals that the Bangkok Community Help Foundation hands out daily.

Under Thailand's current pension policy, the pension amount increases with age. Those aged 60–69 receive THB 600; 70–79 year olds get THB 700 (USD 19.5); 80–89 year olds get THB 800 (USD 22.3), and those over 90 get THB 1,000 (USD 27.8).

Friso Poldervaat, a founder of Bangkok Community Help, is one of the volunteers who hands out food every day. He acknowledges that handouts are not a sustainable solution to the problem of homelessness and says that there need to be policy changes to increase housing security in Bangkok.

The most important change, according to Poldervaart, is increasing the pension for the elderly to THB 3,000 (USD 83.6) per month.

Ruea said that if the pension rose to 3,000 baht per month, she would have enough money to support herself and pay for food and stable housing.

“This will mean a lot of elderly will not end up on the street. It’s where the government can make a big move,” Poldervaart said.

Poldervaart is not confident that the pension policy will be changed, however. Although it was a campaign promise made during many elections, it has yet to be implimented.

Sustarum Thammaboosadee, an associate professor at Thammasat University, says that raising the monthly pension would not only benefit elderly recipients but also members of the working class who provide for elderly family members. He said:

I believe that if we have the proper pension scheme, it will not only help us to avoid the problem of homelessness. We have an ageing society and once you give pensions to elderly people … you also help working people.

According to Sustarum, more than 70 percent of the elderly in Thailand do not have financial independence and rely on their children after retirement.

Having studied the economic feasibility of raising the pension, he concludes that it is economically possible.

Implementation largely depends on the government, however. The Move Forward Party had a campaign to raise the pension to 3,000 baht. Sustarum believes if it had been allowed to form a government, the pension would already have been raised.

He adds that other welfare benefits could not only help solve homelessness and ease the burden carried by those looking after elderly family members but also help families maintain their solidarity.

“Parents become sick and cannot work. Sometimes they become a burden, but in Asia, we have to accept this.”

Precariat workers

When Ruea was making a living selling products, she was a member of the precariat, an “informal” worker with no fixed income.

In addition to farmers and market workers, who are also included in this category, Sustarum pointed to a “new generation” of precariat workers who are self-employed in programming, design, and other fields. More than 60 percent of today’s Thai working people reportedly fall into this category.

Such workers are more vulnerable to housing insecurity because their incomes are unpredictable. They may also have less access to welfare services because of the independent nature of their work. This proved to be true during the pandemic.

Once they lose their jobs, they have no access to capital and no stable income. As noted by Sustarum, “They have no social network. They do not know who to ask for help.”

The growth of informal sector employment combined with rising inflation is making it difficult for many to afford housing in Bangkok. Sustarum expects to see more homelessness in the outskirts of Bangkok, explaining that people are moving away from the city as a result of gentrification and rising costs in the city-center.

To combat those factors and achieve greater housing security, he proposes that the government impose a wealth tax, since he believes it would allow Thailand to use more land and resources for affordable housing units.

Without such reforms, Sustarum said, the price of housing, lack of social solidarity, low incomes, and lack of a welfare safety net will “push people into the streets.”

A new generation

A European immigrant, Poldevart, observes that “in Thailand, homeless people are stigmatized as lazy drug addicts.”

According to Sustarum, that attitude belongs to the older generation. He sees it changing among today’s young adults. “Nowadays, if you ask this question to university students, they will say that it is not their fault. It is because of the social structure.”

Generational change can be a powerful tool for social reform.

Imposing a wealth tax and raising pensions are difficult but not impossible. Sustarum points to the electoral success of the Move Forward Party, which began as “a movement of the people.” He also believes that public action is necessary.

“I think that protests and mass movements of civil society are still needed to make politics function … if you just wait for a political party to work for you, you’ll get nothing.”

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