I recently had the privilege of visiting Seoul, South Korea. As part of my trip, I talked to several homeless organizations. One of the homeless men I met with was Mr. Lee. In 1997 he lost his job when the company he worked for (making clothes for school kids) was replaced by a bigger company.
He was homeless for 10 years. Then he fell and ended up in a hospital. When he left the hospital a local civic organization helped him. He repaid their help by agreeing to volunteer. He organized a homeless group of six men. These men simply reached out to other homeless people to talk. They offered no services. They simply asked people what they needed.
In his conversations, he learned that welfare was being cut. There was not enough money to help people. Mr. Lee learned that homeless people lacked any savings and could not get bank credit. So he and his group of six decided to start a bank cooperative and offer their own social services.
Mr. Lee said “banks require a guarantee when they give you a loan. In our own bank, we don’t ask for a guarantee. If people invest in our bank for six months, they can get a loan.” He went on: “some people need to go to the hospital… some need money for food, clothes, a deposit for a co-op apartment.”
The Bank co-op began in April, 2010 with 25 members. Now there are 360 members. The total investment is $40 million “wan” ($40,000). All members have their own savings book. Mr. Lee proudly showed me his savings book. It reminded me of something I used 30 years ago. All the entries from the co-op bank were hand written. He said, “we don’t have computers.”
The co-op is self-sustaining. Mr. Lee wants to set up other co-ops. He said that most people in his community don’t have full-time jobs. In winter it is especially hard to get a job. The co-op selects five people each year and helps them start their own business.
The next day as I was walking through a business district, I stopped to get some roasted nuts from a local street merchant pushing his little cart. This man was one of the people who started his own business with a loan from the co-op bank. Mr. Lee feels sorry that he can only help five people this year. He feels sorry there are not more co-ops. I am sorry that Mr. Lee is not in Chicago helping the homeless start their own co-ops.
A veteran community organizer, Ed Shurna is executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.