There are more than 200,000 runaway teens in Korea.
If that number seems outlandish to you, you’re not alone. Unlike the streets of New York and London, where the homeless are a common sight on many sidewalk corners, Korea’s known-homeless population seems confined to the sullied faces of elderly men gathered on the steps of Seoul Station and sleeping in the underpass of Gwanghwamun Square.
But Father Vincenzo Bordo knows otherwise, and the Women and Family Ministry of Korea agrees. They estimate the number of runaway teens in Korea to be around 250,000. That’s a quarter of a million middle and high school aged kids lacking guidance and love, leaving them vulnerable to violence and exploitation — dim futures that Father Vincenzo is actively fighting against through his organization AGIT (A지T or translated to the bus that cares for the children).
It’s important to define homelessness to understand how such an enormous number of Oliver Twists could go relatively unnoticed. Most do not lack shelter, but they are separated from their families and do not attend school. The Korean government recognized the growing runaway population in 1994 with its establishment of 110 shelters to accommodate the projected influx. But the teens aren’t turning up.
Father Vincenzo believes today’s homeless youth are different from those of the past. They are looking for more than just a roof and hot meals; they want freedom, money and more than anything, a future with less turmoil than their past. “A new need means we need to start a new way. We must create a bridge between runaways and society. That’s our aim at AGIT.”
Father Vincenzo believes that most runaway teens group together and live in shared rooms, which often exposes young teens to sexual relationships, unhealthy power dynamics and complex emotions before they’re ready. But the upside is that word about AGIT has gotten out through the grapevine to those in need.
Since its start in March of 2015, an AGIT bus operates three nights a week, returning each week to the same locations. Father Vincenzo, a trained social worker together with a handful of volunteers travel together and park the colorful bus along main boulevards southeast of Seoul. They then set up a tent, a small table and a few chairs, ready to hand out food, treats and first aid kits to teens that approach them. Each item is labeled with AGIT contact information.
These small hand-outs make a profound difference according to Lisa, a Korean-American teacher who volunteers for the organization. “In Korean, I tell them ‘take this chocolate bar. If you have a friend who is in trouble, give it to them, they can call us.” And they do. The phone calls never fail to flood in, even after nights that seem slow. “A lot of teens are afraid to come up to me because I look Korean, I look like their mother.” says Lisa. “Or they’re afraid that I’ll tell their parents.” So gaining their trust, which is AGIT’s first step in helping these teens, is proving to be difficult.
Always trying new things to reach runaway teens, Father Vincenzo brought a group of Italian friends with him to the AGIT tent one evening. The effect was astounding. “The kids were super curious why foreigners were there. They came up to meet them.” says Lisa. “They approach foreigners more easily because for one, they know that the foreigners will never know anyone in their Korean community.”
After Father Vincenzo caught on, foreigners like volunteer Agnes Schuppel became an essential component to attract more kids in need. “One night, I went with Father Vincenzo into the deeper areas behind the local station. Kids were hanging out on the streets and in small parks.” says Schuppel. “Later, a child did come down to the tent because he was curious about the foreigners.” When the teens come, the volunteers shower them with love in the form of fun games, food and on cold winter nights, warmth from the heaters in the tent. But at 1 o’clock in the morning, the volunteers have to pack up the van and head back home. And the teens head to wherever they’re calling home that night.
AGIT hopes that these positive interactions with caring adults will build confidence and eventually allow AGIT to help them find a safe shelter, get the medical care they need at a hospital, or even go back home. As Father Vincenzo says, “If we’re not there, what happens to them?”
For nearly a quarter of a century, Father Vincenzo has been helping the poor and homeless in Korea. He started up the House of Peace (a soup kitchen for poor elderly people) and a study room for poor kids in 1994 before opening Anna’s House (안나의 집), a venue serving daily hot dinners to more than 500 people and offering them services like haircuts, medical care, and legal and employment assistance. From within Anna’s house, Father Vincenzo leads the program E.V.E (Ego-esteem, Vision, Empowering) for homeless teens. The program provides housing for a period of at least nine months while the teens attend counseling and catch up on schooling. Since its start, 160 kids every year have gone through the program. And now, AGIT will play a role in bringing new teens to E.V.E.
Each month, AGIT sees between 200 to 300 at-risk teens. When they hit rock bottom, they call AGIT. That’s why, rain, shine, snow or typhoons, the AGIT van is always right where it promises to be. Father Vincenzo and his volunteers refuse to abandon these kids like so many others have. The organization has relied on its initial supporter, the Australia New Zealand Association of Korea (ANZA Korea) for a never certain flow of donations. Nonetheless, Father Vincenzo refuses to let these kids down. “His heart has been aching for these kids since he first came to Korea,” says Lisa. “He didn’t just start caring last year, his heart has been after these kids for two decades.” For Father Vincenzo, every human being needs to be accepted, loved and helped, whatever their background.
If you’re interested in supporting AGIT please visit their website www.annahouse.or.kr and donate through the PayPal link.