Breaking the Stereotypes of the Unhoused:
Yo Wash Creates a New Look for Taipei
Photographer Samil Kuo, Dinghan Zheng, Yo Wash
“If our standard of judgment is to determine a person's character by hard work, diligence, effort and seriousness in life, then it is impossible for us not to see how they deserve respect.”— abstract from Lin Li-Ching’s novel Workers (做工的人)
On an ordinary Saturday morning, the famous street art installation known as “Rainbow Six (6號彩虹)” outside Exit 6 of the MRT Ximen Station (捷運西門站) was transformed with a brand-new look. The work was done by local unhoused people hired and trained by Yo Wash (友洗社創) to clean up the city and the community, simultaneously removing the stigma surrounding unhoused people, and regaining their self-confidence and dignity.
▲Yo Wash hopes to eradicate the stereotypes projected toward the unhoused by providing cleaning services to the society.
A Social Experiment with the Unhoused
The origin of Yo Wash began with Lin Li-Ching (林立青), who is known as the “Worker Writer.” Lin, who has been working as a construction supervisor for more than a decade, published his novel, Workers, in 2017. It is based on his own experiences and observations of dealing with the working class. The book has attracted much attention, and was eventually adapted into a TV series that made its critically-acclaimed debut on HBO.
True to the essence of the novel, Lin has always been passionate about sharing his insights on class injustice and respect for labor rights, which is why the stories and hardships faced by the unhoused have also drawn his attention. By chance, at the end of 2021, he was able to take on an additional role as an employer, leading unhoused people with a desire to work to rediscover their sense of self-reliance.
“When the pandemic was most severe last year, Ximending (西門町) in Wanhua District was the first to suffer in Taipei. There was a huge reduction in part-time jobs, and the unhoused were unable to find work and did not know what to do,” recalls Lin.
One day, Lin was volunteering to support Sweet Potato Jelly (涼粉伯), a local dessert shop in Wanhua who used their store as a supply station during the pandemic, hoping to clean the environment so that they could reopen their business. At that time, some unhoused people in the neighborhood were watching and expressed their desire to help. Lin immediately let them try out the cleaning equipment. Even though they had no experience in cleaning, they were very engaged in the process.
▲Whether rain or shine, members of Yo Wash have to operate heavy machinery to complete their cleaning jobs.
This gave Lin a flash of inspiration: Would it be possible to develop an organization that provides professional cleaning services and recruits unhoused people to work there? After cleaning a few venues, Lin found that he was able to earn some revenue and give it back to the unhoused people who participated, and thus, at the end of 2021, Yo Wash was born.
A Home for the Unhoused
Why has Wanhua, with its long history, turned into a gathering place for the unhoused in recent years? Formerly known as Bangka (艋舺), Wanhua was the earliest settled area in the north. During the Qing Dynasty, Taiwan's economic center of gravity gradually shifted northward, and commercial activities flourished in Wanhua, with convenient water transportation along the Tamsui River. Merchants, sailors and workers gathered around the docks and developed plenty of business opportunities.
The glory didn’t last long, however. The river suffered from a serious siltation problem in the Japanese era, forcing freight transportation to move from river to land, and shifting the commercial center from Wanhua to Dadaocheng.
Due to its early development, the land space in Wanhua gradually became overcrowded, and social changes caused the labor force and businesses to leave. In addition to the impact of migrant workers coming to work in Taiwan, the laborers who gathered in Wanhua in the early days were aging and losing their competitiveness in the market, so they had to rely on temporary jobs to survive. Wanhua, which is not far from Taipei Main Station (台北車站) and has much open public space, has become an area for the economically disadvantaged and unhoused to stay. As a result, both governmental and non-governmental social welfare organizations are gradually starting to provide care services for the unhoused in the vicinity.
“Some people are really unlucky and have such bad luck and fate,” says Lin. The reasons for becoming unhoused are complex, and they find comfort in the interpersonal connection and empathetic care they receive in Wanhua. Some stores are willing to show their appreciation and solidarity at important moments. For example, the aforementioned Sweet Potato Jelly and social welfare groups also helped to send epidemic prevention supplies so that the epidemic would not spread, and the neighborhood could gradually get back on the right track.
▲A well-known writer in Taipei, Lin is also a hands-on boss who is heavily involved in all the day-to-day activities of Yo Wash. (Photo/Samil Kuo)
Yo Wash was established in Wanhua to help unhoused people find the rhythm of work and familiarize themselves with the operation of high-pressure cleaning equipment. Initially, one or two unhoused people were guided by professional foremen in their work. Although it is inevitable to experience turnover and learning obstacles, six members have been able to operate independently since training began in March of this year.
“What I can do is to provide job opportunities. The physical work is exhausting, but surely rewarding,” says Lin, who admits that it is a great challenge to work with the unhoused, but he still wants to hold on to his ideals and help the unhoused to acquire a skill to survive.
▲By training the unhoused, Lin hopes that they will be able to earn a living and become self-reliant. (Photo/Yo Wash)
A Clean Environment Brings Back a Sense of Social Identity
In the past eight months since its establishment, Yo Wash has achieved many milestones, mainly by cleaning the floors of arts and cultural venues, religious buildings, and stalls and stores such as Kishu An Forest of Literature (紀州庵文學森林) and Bopiliao Historic Block (剝皮寮歷史街區). Other accomplishments include cleaning ten elementary and middle schools in northern Taiwan to maintain safety standards, and cleaning the temple grounds of Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple (台北霞海城隍廟) on Menstrual Hygiene Day along with the non-profit organization With Red (小紅帽), which fights stereotypes against women, just as unhoused people deal with negative stereotypes against them.
▲Many attractions such as Kishu An Forest of Literature use the services of Yo Wash, giving the unhoused a job opportunity and Taipei a refreshed look. (Photo/Yo Wash)
Yo Wash also takes on special projects, such as death scene cleaning and restoration of the deceased's house. “Cleaning the deceased's house requires special care in disinfection and cleaning steps, and it requires patience with the smell,” says Lin, though the hard work involved speaks for itself.
Meanwhile, the most unforgettable experience for Lin was participating in the blessing procession at Chi-Tian Temple (啟天宮) in Wanhua in April. Wearing the temple's pink uniforms, Yo Wash members followed at the back of the Mazu (媽祖) parade and were responsible for cleaning the traces and dust left by the firecrackers. To many Yo Wash staff members, this is not only an act of service to the gods, but also a way to repay their blessings.
The trip also included cleaning with the famous YouTuber “Mimosa Go (含羞草日記),” who has over a million subscribers. This helped the unhoused staffers gain notice by the public, and also helped them gain acceptance as members of the local community, changing the previous situation where they were rejected and criticized, thus increasing their confidence and recognition of their work.
“I think it is important for the members to see the results of the cleaning work,” Lin says. After washing the temples and public spaces, all the members would take a special detour to see if the places they had cleaned themselves were still clean, and would even take the initiative to clean them again to maintain their shiny appearance.
The same consideration was given to the art installation “Rainbow Six” in Ximending, especially since many unhoused people have benefited from the employment opportunities and life adjustments brought forward by the Ximending shopping district. With gratitude, Yo Wash cleaned the facades of Ximending. Many local schools and venues, with a grateful heart, issued certificates of appreciation for Lin’s employees after the cleaning was done.
Creating Self-Esteem Through Action
▲Yo Wash also invites people to experience cleaning work from time to time, hoping to create a society where the public lives in harmony with the unhoused.
Although the members of Yo Wash have endured some bad life experiences, they are also eager to be needed by society. They have gained self-reliance through work, and found meaning in cleaning, slowly proving to themselves and others that they have the ability to survive independently.
Even though Yo Wash is still facing challenges such as the relocation of its warehouse and unstable business volume, Lin has not forgotten to spread his positive energy to more social welfare organizations. Recently, some of Yo Wash's equipment was loaned to Homeless Taiwan (台灣芒草心慈善協會), which also originated in Wanhua and helps unhoused people to become independent. Yo Wash also takes part in training sessions set up by Homeless Taiwan to teach unhoused people about on-site procedures and action items, so that they will not be overloaded when they start working.
“There are many people who have opinions, but the point is not what you say, but what you do,” says Lin. His actions demonstrate both his support for the unhoused and respect for their labor. Through concrete solutions, the underprivileged are given the opportunity to contribute to society, to eliminate prejudice and discrimination, and to be accepted by the community again. This is what makes social innovation so valuable. Yo Wash will continue to do good work and prove the greatness of small gestures.
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