I doubt there are any foreigners who come to Thailand with the expectation of ending up homeless and searching for food in bins. Unfortunately, this is the way things turn out for a significant number of people who come here. An article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post (Homeless Foreigners on the Rise) gave an optimistic estimate of 400 homeless foreigners in Thailand – I’d be very surprised if the number wasn’t significantly higher than this.
My Experiences of Homelessness
I’ve never been homeless in Thailand, but I did live on the streets of London for a brief period of my life. This occurred due to an alcohol-related mental breakdown in my mid-twenties. I had been a bit depressed in the run-up to this, but I had also plenty of good stuff going on in my life such being accepted at university. I can’t blame my homelessness on any one event – at the time it just felt like everything just started to fall apart. I wanted to die, but I no longer had the energy to do anything with this yearning, so I just lived on the streets. I felt alone and afraid, and my thinking became so mixed up that it was impossible for me to figure out a solution. Luckily there were other people there to help me get back on my feet.
I moved to Thailand in 2001 and for my first five years living here I was caught up in a downward spiral driven by addiction to alcohol. I’d arrived from Saudi Arabia (where I worked as a nurse) with a healthy bank account and no real plans. I honestly believed that living in this beautiful country would give me a new start in life. Like lots of others before me, I mistakenly believed that my problems were due to my surroundings, so living in an exotic place like Thailand would fix me. It didn’t. My life went into free-fall, and I’d almost certainly be dead now if it wasn’t for the help from Thai people and Thamrkabok Temple in 2006. I could easily have been one of the homeless foreigners in Thailand.
How Do Foreigners End Up Homeless in Thailand?
A common sentiment among expats in Thailand (at least if the online forums are representative) is that homeless foreigners are getting what they deserve – or as they say here ‘สมน้ำหน้า/ som nam naa’. They are just ‘weak minded’ people who have been gullible enough to allow a Thai partner to cheat them out of all their money or they are drunks who shouldn’t have been allowed to enter Thailand in the first place. Plenty of expats can’t even bare to make eye contact with other foreigners, so it is hardly surprising they have little sympathy for these ‘losers’. Of course, the reality is that things are nowhere near as black and white as these people would suggest. Nobody comes to Thailand with the intention of ending up homeless, and these guys will have undoubtedly appeared perfectly sane and sober when they arrived.
It is tempting to believe that homelessness and addiction only happens to inferior humans. This provides a false sense of security as well as smugness. The reality is that mental illness can strike anyone and when it does that person can lose everything. As well as experiencing homelessness first-hand, I’ve also done some volunteer work in homeless shelters. Some of these guys were successful – it just took a couple of things to go wrong and their life went out of control. I remember one old fella who had been an Oxford University professor, but he was unable to keep it together after he lost his wife.
Moving to Thailand Increases the Risk of Mental Illness and Addiction
Leaving the normal routines of life in the west will increase the risk of mental illness and addiction. This is because we are away from the constraints on our behavior, and family and friends are not here to raise concerns about our deterioration. When we step off the plane, it can feel like the normal standards do not apply. The fact that we don’t understand the rules of Thai culture gives us the false impression that there are no rules. We now see nothing wrong with getting drunk during the middle of the day, and there is no pressure on us to hide our excesses. We are given the freedom to fall apart and those of us who have been struggling to keep things together for years will be happy to make the most of the opportunity.
What Should Be Done to Help Homeless Foreigners in Thailand
Homeless foreigners are human beings who are struggling in life. They should be treated with compassion and offered help. Foreign embassies and consulates should step in to provide safe accommodation and food until these people can be helped back on their feet or repatriated to their home country– they should definitely not end up in jail waiting for deportation. I’ve found the people of Thailand to be very kind-hearted, and there are local temples like Thamrkabok where addicts can seek sanctuary and help.
Update: there is an interesting article written by Mong Palatino for the Global Voice dealing with the issues raised in this post – Homeless Foreigners on the Rise in Thailand