Love Heart Home is where the heart is for drifters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am

Every morning in a remote village in Shandong province, dozens of neighbours are woken by the national anthem and shuffle off to a local square to perform morning exercises.

Led by local villager Li Junmin , the group jog and stretch together before uniting in a chorus of revolutionary songs. From a distance, these early risers in Lijun county appear unremarkable, but a closer look reveals their hair is matted and their clothing soiled.

They are just some of the hundreds of the people who have found shelter in the home of 37-year-old rubbish collector Mr Li and his wife, Han Shuxia , China Central Television reports.

Even though he is poor himself, Mr Li has opened his home to about 1,000 homeless people over the past eight years.

Mr Li calls his small compound the Love Heart Home and says 90 per cent of those who come through its doors are mentally ill people from around the country.

They are given 500 grams of steamed bread and a bowl of vegetable soup every meal time and in return they help Mr Li sort piles of plastic waste so it can be sold to recycling stations.

Mr Li said the hardships he had suffered encouraged him to start taking care of the homeless. He was born with only one ear and had long been the target of discrimination, while he suffered brain damage during a beating at the hands of a neighbour a decade ago.

After the violent altercation, Mr Li left home and became an itinerant for a year, but people encouraged him to return home. He said he then realised that it was his responsibility to help disadvantaged people.

His wife said it was the kindness of strangers that saved him.

'[Mr Li] said that when he was ill, some good-hearted people offered him help. Now he is alright and can't stop helping others,' Ms Han told CCTV.

Mr Li said he saw the drifters as his brothers, although they were sometimes difficult to manage.

'Some of them have poor hygiene and some don't listen to directions when doing the morning exercises. My solution is to threaten to not give them food,' he said.

'For drifters, having a full stomach is the most important thing.'

Mr Li's approach to the homeless has not been universally well received, with some accusing him of profiting from the itinerant labour.

In response, he denies the lodgers are forced to work. He says they are not particularly good workers and their contribution to his recycling business does not cover his 9,000 yuan monthly food bill.

'These people are good models for eating, but are very poor at sworking,' Mr Li told the Nanfang Weekly.

'A normal little girl can sort more than 100kg [of plastic trash] a day, but these people can only manage about 1kg per person per day.

'I do not force them to work and don't treat them differently based on their capabilities. I just tell them to work by themselves.'

Authorities support Mr Li's efforts because the lodgers are well fed and some eventually return home. The Nanfang Weekly reports he will be rewarded with Communist Party membership this year.

Xu Zhiyong , an academic from the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, is researching aid targeted at drifters and says the government should encourage individuals or non-governmental organisations to help the homeless.

'In many cases the government cannot do well in this field,' Professor Xu said. 'The authorities should also provide incentives and the necessary financial help for these people or NGOs, as well as supervision.'

Two years ago Beijing introduced a law forcing authorities to offer accommodation and assistance to itinerants, abolishing the decade-long practice of collecting homeless people and sending them back to their home towns whether they wanted to go or not.

Mr Li vows to continue helping the homeless. 'If I cannot afford to accommodate them one day, I will go out begging with them,' he said.