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Homeless, hapless

Taiwan's homeless a galling reminder of country's growing wealth gap

With an advertising sign in his hands, Mr Liao Chin-chang stands wearily at an intersection near a new luxury apartment building in Taipei.

He's trying to earn money as a walking billboard for the type of property most Taiwanese can never afford.

The sight of homeless people holding placards for elite properties at street corners is becoming increasingly common in Taiwan's capital, providing a harsh illustration of the island's gap between the haves and have nots.

The 51-year-old former taxi driver, who became homeless a decade ago, is among the growing number of victims of a struggling economy, many of whom have been forced out of their homes after losing their jobs.

Property prices in general are beyond the reach of many regular salary-earners - who have an average monthly income of less than NT$$40,000 (S$1,700).

For the likes of Mr Liao, even renting a room is out of the question.

He told AFP: "I can't even afford to pay the rent since I lost my job 10 years ago. I've only saved NT$$4,000 from doing odd jobs all these years, which is not enough to rent a small room for one month."

In recent years, the gap between the rich and poor has widened rapidly, reaching a record level in 2011 as the wealthiest families earned 96 times more than the poorest.

It has coincided with a slowing economy, partly driven by the relocation of manufacturing industries to cheaper foreign countries such as China and Vietnam, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs.

Social workers say the chances of Taiwan's homeless getting back on their feet are slim, given the competition for long-hour, low-paying temporary jobs.

"People are fighting for every job opportunity during the economic downturn," said public relations director Li Ting-ting from Zenan Homeless Social Welfare Foundation.

COMPETITION

"There is competition with young people or housewives even for a temporary placard-holding job."

The bottom 5 per cent of families reported an average annual income of NT$48,000, compared with NT$4.63 million earned by the top five per cent in 2011, based on income tax filings.

Taiwan has made efforts to address the wealth inequality, while initiating plans to rein in soaring property prices and hike taxes for the wealthy, which has helped narrow the gap between rich and poor since the 2011 record.

But the plight of the underclass is becoming an increasingly frequent theme in the media, including the recent story of an eight-year-old living in a graveyard with her cash-stripped parents for more than a year after they were kicked out by their landlord. Social workers eventually intervened.

Taiwan has moved to levy a so-called "rich man's tax" on nearly 10,000 of the island's wealthiest people in a bid to narrow the income gap and ease growing public anger. The proposal passed an initial screening in parliament earlier this month.

But Professor Lin Wan-i of the National Taiwan University's Department of Social Work warned that income disparity will widen further: "The gap will continue as the next generations inherit wealth, while the poor have little chance to turn their situations around with less money for their children."


The gap will continue as the next generations inherit wealth while the poor have little chance to turn their situations around with less money for their children.

- Professor Lin Wan-i of the National Taiwan University's Department of Social Work