One decade ago, Sumet “Lung Daeng” Pongkanpai, 53, and Namtan “Auan” Sophakij, 49, were homeless. Then they found a place to shelter at the Homeless Center Suwit Watnu in Bangkok Noi, a project funded by both the government and NGOs which helps homeless people with both accommodation and job opportunities. As they help out at a second homeless center on the outskirts of Bangkok (Phuttamonthon Sai 2), Daeng and Auan open up to BK about their newfound lives and self-sufficiency within the community. 

How did you become homeless?

Auan: I literally had no home from the time I was born. My parents lived with relatives in Phetburi. I finally ran away to work in Bangkok when I was 19. I later became homeless when the contractor I worked for fired me as they didn’t want women workers. After that, I lived on the streets in Sanamluang on and off. 
Daeng: I was working with my brother in law in Ayutthaya before I injured my back from falling off a roof. I couldn’t walk for two years. I felt I was a burden to my sister’s family as they started fighting about me. When I was able to walk, I ran away from home and worked as a bus driver at a tour company for a couple of years before my back problem prevented me from driving. I couldn’t keep begging for small money from colleagues so I decided to stay at Sanamluang. I lost all my belongings on the first night when someone snatched them  while I was asleep. I didn’t eat anything for two days until a homeless uncle shared his food and advised me on how to survive in Sanamluang by doing odd jobs—selling drinks, collecting plastic bottles, being an extra for movies. 

Why did you decide to join Bangkok Noi’s Homeless Center?

Auan: People from the center invited us to stay at their place after officials shut Sanamluang to get rid of homeless people in 2001. It was the rainy season so I decided to join. There I learned I had many homeless friends staying already. We would go out to work during the day and come back to sleep, saving money with the center. We became the first group of people chosen to buy homes under a project set up by the shelter. 
Daeng: It was a good decision for me as I had a pretty unstable mind back then. I had started talking to myself. The Bangkok Noi center taught me how to do a lot of jobs, including how to grow vegetables, which really helped guide me back on track. 

What does your work at the shelter consist of now?

Auan: The center recently founded a limited partnership called Khon Rai Ban [Homeless People] LP, which puts its residents to work doing whatever jobs people hire us for, like building and demolition work. Others like me also do whatever they can to make money, such as selling scrap.   
Daeng: I take care of all the farming work at the project, such as growing vegetables and fishing in the pond. We just received live goats, chickens and ducks from Thonglor’s Root Garden when it closed down. Now we can produce eggs to sell to community members at a cheap price, then use that money to manage the farm, buying seeds and food for the poultry. 

How much do you pay to stay at the home? 

Auan: I have to pay B700 a month for 30 years to pay for my B200,000 home.

Do you dream of anything else? 

Auan: My dream has already come true. I never had a home. So I just wanted to prove that homeless people like me can become homeowners. As I’m part of the pilot project, my ambition now is to pay off my home and see the project succeed. If it fails, it means our homeless friends who are still waiting to buy homes won’t have this chance again. Even if I die before finishing my payments, my fellows at the first homeless center will still get this house and can continue the dream.
Daeng: I’m just proud of my journey. I’ve come from a person with zero human dignity to someone who can walk into government offices and talk to ministers and officials about homeless people’s rights and what we want to achieve. Though my family want me back, I still want to work with homeless people in this community. Now I dream that the new homeless center in Chiang Mai will also be a success. The government already passed the budget to build it, which includes everything from a library to play rooms and living space.
If you want to visit or hire the cooperative, you can contact Somporn Harnprom, Homeless Center Suwit Watnu coordinator, at 095-675-3303. 
Take a closer look at the center below: