By Kristine De Leon
On a bleak and piercing cold morning on November 8, homeless starving wretches draw round to a man with a large pot of soup. In a drunken stupor, the hunger-worn outcasts can hardly open their eyes as they greet the familiar face of the man who once lived with them on the streets.
That man with the large pot of soup is Byambaa, and he once lived in a bitter world.
“I used to live on the street six years ago. I was addicted to alcohol and started living on the street. I used to live in manholes and sleep next to hot water pipes. People living on the street have family issues and work problems, and lose hope. Also, there are a lot of factors such as natural disasters, domestic violence, and cheating. Their hearts were broken because of family issues and so on. Heartbreak is the biggest problem for homeless people. Ninety percent of the homeless people ended up on the street due to heartbreak. They start drinking to forget all that stuff. They drink more and more and more. One day, they can’t stop drinking and became alcohol addicts. Their money will be spent. They started robbing and stealing in order to make money and buy vodka. At the end of that, they started collecting plastic bottles from dumpsite. That’s how they ended up on the street. I also experienced heartbreak and started drinking alcohol. I used to drink rubbing alcohol, which contains 70 percent alcohol by volume, because I didn’t have money to buy regular alcohol.”
Byambaa decided to get back to a normal life six years ago. He began by staying in a alcohol rehab center for a year. “I was the youngest in that rehab center. Homeless people living on the street are becoming younger and younger these days,” Byambaa explains.
When Byambaa had his life together once again, Corrie van der Esch asked him if he could help her with a new project named “Sergelt” (Revival) by using his experiences to help the homeless.
“I agreed to work and wanted to help the homeless because I was just like them [once],” says Byambaa.
Sergelt is a project of the Good Neighbor Society (GNS) in Mongolia, which began serving Ulaanbaatar’s homeless population in 2014. Corrie van der Esch, who had already been working with GNS in Mongolia, spearheaded a project that would operate as a mobile contact point for homeless people working to improve their life situation eventually towards reintegration into society. Currently operating from a single Prius, Sergelt aims to transform the lives of homeless people caught in the cycle of poverty through simple acts of kindness.
Sergelt is radically changing lives by directly engaging with unsheltered individuals dealing with homelessness and provide support services to help stabilize lives.
“We don’t try to teach them that they have to change their mind and how they do things. We just try to talk with them just as if they are normal people. We shake their hands and just talk with them about normal stuff, just like normal people,” says Corrie.
“We are going to the street. We are going to them and they don’t need to come to us. We are very lowkey and very easily accessible for the homeless. We are the missing link,” explains Corrie.
With only a handful of volunteers, Sergelt connects the most vulnerable Mongolians to vital resources throughout the city.
“There are organizations that work partly with the homeless, for example the alcohol rehabilitation centers. They don’t focus 100 percent on homeless people – they focus on alcoholics. But our target groups are mostly alcoholics, so we work with them as well. We are the link between the organizations as well.”
With the support of international funds, the Sergelt project also offers a variety of services and activities, from haircuts to wound treatments to counseling. Twice each week, usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, a small team of volunteers accompany Corrie and Byambaa to go out on the streets to meet homeless people.
“They know we are there,” says Corrie. People living in the streets often discover Sergelt’s services by word of mouth. “We go to two locations in UB each week to hand out food, do some wound treatment, talk with people, we try to advise them on how to be able to change their life and how to take steps to reintegrate into society. We also tell them about other organizations.”
When we asked about Sergelt’s positive impact on the lives of homeless people, Corrie explains, “It is very difficult to keep track of how people are changing because they are on the street.”
Nonetheless, she’s optimistic about Sergelt’s unorthodox approach to homelessness.
“We do see some people changing, since we do talk to them a lot.” However, the types of impact that they hope to achieve can vary greatly, as reflected in Byambaa’s account – from giving voice to and empowering individuals, to improving service access, to transforming the systems that produce and maintain homelessness.
For Byambaa, he thinks that there are less people living on the streets. Sergelt project is helping so many homeless people get back into society. We have connections with a rehabilitation center and hospital. Some homeless people say they want to get back into society. If they truly decide to leave the streets, we send that person to a rehab center. Sometimes homeless people contact their family again,” he says.
Corrie shares her thoughts on why she thinks Sergelt works, “We really see that it is very important to go to the people as they are on the street so that they don’t have to step up a big threshold. In other words, if they themselves have to go to an or-
ganization to ask for help, it is often a very big step for them to take.”
Corrie looks over to Byambaa and gestures him to share his thoughts about Sergelt’s impact.
As someone who was homeless for over six years, Byambaa explains, “People treat [the homeless] like dogs. So we have to listen and talk to them, and give them a sense that people still care and recognize you. Homeless people have to understand that they are still being loved. Our job is to give them that feeling. It is way better than just giving advice. They come to us and express that they want to get back into society when they feel like they still exist. I used to be homeless. That’s why I understand and know their feelings.”
From what Byambaa has seen, the people who end up on the street were once ordinary people.
“Women who experienced domestic violence and beaten up by their husbands became homeless. They drink alcohol to forget those problems and end up on the street. It is even harder for women to get back into society. People don’t welcome homeless people because of the smell of their clothes. That’s why homeless people started thinking; they are useless and no one will care if they get back into society. There are few women who got back into society.”
Sergelt’s future goal is to move on to other areas of UB and work together with volunteers in those areas.
“We try to work at different areas of UB since we are a mobile project,” says Corrie. She hopes to reach out to all of UB one day, because often times, groups end up raiding those who have received help.
“Homeless people tend to establish groups and set territories. The groups do not allow other groups to enter their territory. They are ready to kill each other for food or plastic bottles they collect. Regular people don’t care if they murder and stab each other,” Byambaa explains why he would like to help more people across UB.
Each year, people are evicted from their homes by the hundreds. Their visibility is problematic to the city’s economic and tourist progress. For the mainstream public, an encounter with the visible poor “disrupts the ordinary rhythms of public life.” Their suffering is not only a material one, but the homeless also suffer from a crisis of identity that is equal to if not greater than their crisis of economics and space.