“My sister told me later that she naturally assumed that Hong was a street preacher since he was shouting something, wearing a red vest and a red hat,” said Hong Jung-mi, the owner of Soo-ra, a Korean restaurant near Ewha.
Hong is neither a street preacher nor a plain street vendor. Hong is a vendor of Big Issue magazines, which aim to help homeless people blend into society by giving them a way to earn a living. He is in charge of selling the magazines in front of Ewha Womans University. He earns 1,600 won each time he sells a magazine which costs 3,000 won.
Before becoming a Big Issue vendor last year, he had been a homeless person for 12 years. Before then, he was an owner of a grocery store with his wife. When his wife, his soul mate, died in June 1998 because of cancer, “everything changed.”
“Right after her death, I tried to kill myself by starving,” Hong said. “I could not do anything. I left my store to another person since I could not work there any longer. The store reminded me of my wife.”
Because of his 12-year homeless life, he is vulnerable to cold weather and cannot eat properly. He especially cannot eat well around April, May, and June as the date his wife died comes near.
“But selling Big Issue and meeting Ewha students give me more energy,” Hong said. “It is better than medicine. I had to stay in hospital for two weeks last May, but I left the hospital only after five days since I knew some Ewha students were waiting for the latest Big Issue.”
He found out about Big Issue accidentally when he volunteered to do oil spill recovery work in Taean with a nongovernmental organization helping homeless people.
“At first, I did not want to do it,” Hong said. “It (starting a new life by selling Big Issue magazines) sounded so unachievable. Now, it feels like I am living a new life.”
Now, Hong is recognized as one of the most successful Big Issue vendors by the Big Issue and lives in an apartment in Seodaemun-gu, paying his own rent. Hong thinks he “owes a lot to Ewha students” as he has many regular customers who buy every issue of the Big Issue or stop to have conversations with him.
“I feel sorry that I am bad at remembering people’s faces and their names,” Hong said. “But every customer is meaningful to me since they contribute to giving new opportunity to a homeless person.”
Despite his bad memory, Hong remembers professor Lee In-sook (Health Education) and Hong Eun-jin (’04, History Education) as his most memorable customers.
“Professor Lee even brought her students to help me sell Big Issue magazines when she found out that I skip lunch to sell the magazines,” Hong said. “Hong Eun-jin also helped me selling the magazines and was kind to me, caring about my health.”
With Hong Eun-jin’s help, he donated 200,000 won from his savings last June to help an Ewha student who is going through financial difficulty. He plans to donate 200,000 won at the end of every month.
“I cried when I received the money from him,” said the student who wished to remain anonymous. “I couldn’t help it. I think 200,000 won he gave me was worth like 2 million won – not only to him but also to me.”
There were two reasons behind his decision to donate 200,000 won. One was because of his gratitude to Ewha students “who treated him like family.” Another reason comes from what he experienced when he was a homeless person.
“During my 12 years as the poorest person in this society, I met a lot of angels who helped and cared about others for nothing in return,” Hong said. “When I became a Big Issue vendor in July 2010, I decided to return what I received. The donation was my first step to keep my words.”
Motivated by Hong’s passion for selling Big Issues or starting a new life, four stores in front of Ewha became “Big Shops,” which help Big Issue vendors by providing places to rest when it rains or snows or other kinds of help, like free meals.
“I am a lucky guy,” Hong said. “I heard it is difficult for a Big Issue vendor to have even one Big Shop, but I have four of them. The office also told me it is a very rare case.”
Hong plans to become a vegetable wholesale dealer next March when he saves around 30 million won.
“I hope I could also be an angel to people in need, since I met many of them in my life,” Hong said.