Seoul (AsiaNews) The number of homeless people in South Korea is up. The Health and Welfare Ministry reported 4,722 homeless, 2,763 living in 101 public shelters across the country. The problem is generating concern since it is the highest number registered since 2001, up by 256 over the previous year. Still the figure is lower than in the late 1990s when the country was in the midst of an economic recession. In 1999, the number of homeless people was as high as 6,300.
However, the authorities believe that the current data are inaccurate. It fails to take into account the many sick people who are reluctant to provide personal information. Moreover, ministry officials have acknowledged losing trace of many people who were under treatment last year.
Most homeless people (77 per cent) live in South Korea's two largest cities: 3,200 in Seoul and 460 in Pusan.
In the capital more than a thousand people have signed up for a city plan to hire the homeless in the construction industry.
The Health Ministry also plans to provide free health care to them. According to its data, about 40 per cent suffers from chronic diseases, alcohol abuse and mental problems.
At present, there are four free health care clinics, but the only one addressing the needs of mental patients is located in the capital.
In January a survey of 1,900 people revealed that 12 per cent of homeless needed urgent treatment against tuberculosis and infectious diseases.
"The problem is the government is unable to provide economic opportunities and is only using stop gap measures," said Kim Jung-hyun, from Human Rights Coalition.
For Kim and other critics of government policy, the authorities are unable to manage the problem and the growing gap between haves and have-nots is only going to make matters worse.
"The government has shut down 9 of the existing 64 shelters, and many people have been forced into the street. But even if the shelters were made more accessible, it would only improve marginally the problem," he said. "We are conscious that government has limited resources, but it is also not implementing effective policies".