Better Homes For The Destitute

Tzu Chi volunteers and staffers help the poor repair their dilapidated homes. With the renovation of their aged houses, these people no longer have to worry about rain leaking into their places. They now look forward to going home and their children are no longer shy about inviting friends over.

Volunteers remove a rotten ceiling in the home of a needy family in Keelung, northern Taiwan.

Early one morning, Chen Wen-liang  (陳文亮), a civil engineer working for Tzu Chi, drove southward from his home in Taichung to the nearby city of Changhua. The foundation was helping repair the home of Mr. and Mrs. Wu, and Chen had arranged for several volunteers to pour the foundation on this day.

Wu is over 60 years old. He farms and takes care of his epileptic wife, whos illness entitles her to a monthly disability payment of NT$3,500 (US$110) from the government. Wu also works odd jobs when he can to supplement his income.

The 40-year-old house in which the couple lived was almost uninhabitable. Its roof had rotted, allowing rain to leak through. Exposed electrical wiring ran every which way. There was no indoor plumbing. Wu usually pumped up groundwater to wash himself, but when it got too cold for that, he would heat water outside the house and take it inside to use.

The cement truck was too big to get close to the house, which was located in a narrow alleyway. Chen and the volunteers used wheelbarrows to ferry the concrete mix from the truck to Wu’s home. They made trip after trip through the alleyway, which was no small inconvenience to the residents in the neighborhood. Fortunately, the neighbors were patient with the workers; they knew all about Tzu Chi and its philanthropic work.

Wu had left the house before dawn to work an odd job, but he came home early so he could join the volunteers and help them out. The work planned for that day was successfully accomplished.

The next day, Chen moved on to another project. Like the day before, he got up bright and early. He packed a new water heater and gas range into the back of his car and headed for Huwei, Yuanlin—even further south than where he had traveled the day before.

Dozens of volunteers were already waiting when he arrived at Mrs. Qiu’s house, ready to fix the woman’s ramshackle old place. Her home used to be a woodshed in a 60-year-old traditional courtyard farmhouse. The roof of the shed leaked, its beams and pillars were warped, and the concrete floors were cracked. Volunteers had decided to fix up the place, put in a bathroom and kitchen, and repartition the interior space so that there would be a room where Mrs. Qiu’s children could sleep when they returned home to visit.

House renovations like this are no big deal for people who can afford to pay others to do the work. But for those who rely on aid for a living, such renovations are often beyond their means. As a result, they end up living in their dilapidated homes, putting up with conditions that most people cannot imagine.

Working with social workers and construction professionals, Tzu Chi staffers and volunteers provide free home restoration services to the needy and, when they can, do the actual work themselves to minimize the cost of labor.

This old man from Baozhong, Yunlin, used to live in a rundown, tiny shed cobbled together with wooden boards and corrugated metal sheets. When Tzu Chi learned of his plight, they repaired an old house nearby for him to live in.

Home restoration

Chen Wen-liang is a full-time staffer in Tzu Chi’s construction department. He has worked on more than a hundred homes in the last four years to improve their safety or functionality.

“We installed several dozen septic tanks just last year alone,” Chen said. He is shocked by how many families he has met in the course of his work who have lived without such a basic sanitation amenity as a flush toilet. The wide gap between the rich and the poor in Taiwan really surprised him.

Before he joined Tzu Chi, he worked on several public mega-projects. The budgets for those projects ran into billions or even tens of billions of Taiwanese dollars. By contrast, his current projects usually cost no more than 300,000 Taiwanese dollars each. Despite the huge budget differences, he treats his home repair projects with as much care as he did his former mega-projects. “We save when we can, but we also rip out old things and replace them with new things when that makes sense.” Chen pointed out that in planning for a repair job, aside from cost and functionality, the Tzu Chi team also takes into account the durability of the building materials and house-specific considerations, such as the architectural style and construction techniques of the original building.

Usually, before a Tzu Chi team thinks about repairing a house, it performs a thorough inspection, which includes checking the soundness of the electrical wiring and whether a gas water heater is located in a safe place. They ask questions such as: How many people are there in the family? How many male and female members? Are there old people or children? Are there disabled people? Do they usually cook at home? After all, the residents are the end users of a house. Their needs must be taken into consideration when arrangements are being made for a renovation project.

Building a brand new structure is often just a matter of following the blueprint, which is rather straightforward. In Chen’s opinion, building something new is usually easier than making improvements to a run-down house. “Repairing an old home is a bit like a doctor trying to find out what’s wrong with a patient.” It often requires a great deal of expertise and experience. For example, diagnosing the source of moisture for a moldy wall and eradicating the problem calls for someone who truly knows his work.

Expertise and experience are required, but there is even more to it than that. The people who actually do the repairs must also be willing to work in uncomfortable places. Sometimes the surroundings are downright offensive to the senses.

One time Chen walked into a house slated to be repaired in Zhushan, Nantou, central Taiwan. His first thought upon entering the home was that he had stepped into a tunnel. The house was so cluttered by garbage that there was only a small passageway left that allowed people to go through. He saw two people sleeping in that narrow passage, an old man and his grandson.

As he went further into the house, he saw a toilet that had overflowed. He also saw a kitchen filled with old junk, and odds and ends hanging from a horizontal bamboo pole covered with dust. “I thought I had walked into a deserted house,” Chen said. “But there were actually people living inside.”

Volunteers removed several truckloads of garbage from the site. “We even removed a nest of mice,” Chen recalled. “Two dozen baby mice apparently had just been born because their eyes were all still shut.”

The team had planned to install a flush toilet and septic tank system and a shower stall that day, but some volunteers were on the verge of throwing up before the new toilet set was even unloaded from the truck.

You couldn’t pay some people enough to get them to work in this kind of environment. It definitely takes love and a sense of mission for a person to volunteer in such an unpleasant setting. “It’s not a problem if you work on the project as if you were repairing your own house,” Chen said.


Chen Wen-liang checks on the condition of a house in Changhua that he had previously helped repair.


In preparation for a roof repair in Huwei, Yunlin, volunteers remove roof tiles and form a line to pass them out.


Every home custom-made

Chen Qi-shi (陳乞食), 78$, lives alone in a century-old house up on Bagua Mountain, Nantou. His house had become derelict over the years. The roof leaked every time it rained, several windows and doors in the house were broken, light fixtures were damaged, electrical wiring was exposed, and the water heater was too old to be useful. Two typhoons in 2015 further damaged the roof over a bedroom, forcing Chen to sleep on a cot in the living room. His house offered little quality of life, and his physical safety was at risk too.

His only income had been an annuity payment for farmers from the government, but that was only about 230 U.S. dollars a month. That was scarcely enough to cover his medical bills and provide him with a basic living, so it was out of the question for him to contemplate a repair project for his house.

He asked around for charitable organizations that might help. His village head and a local charity referred him to Tzu Chi. Chen Wen-liang and some volunteers visited his home, assessed the situation, and decided to rehabilitate his old house.

The old man was expecting just a little help—enough to fix his roof. When he learned that Tzu Chi would repair his entire house free of charge, he was truly and pleasantly surprised.

The house had historical value, given its age. So instead of repairing it just for function, the Tzu Chi team approached the project with a mindset to restore it for its heritage value. For instance, the rear wall of the house had been built with mud bricks, so the new wall was not painted but stuccoed to give it an appearance closer to that of the original. The wooden window frames were kept, and the roof tiles were replaced with silver-gray steel tiles that give off an air of antiquity.

This process was much more involved than simply tearing down the old and putting in the new, but the Tzu Chi team did not mind the extra work. After restoration, Chen’s house appeared much as it did before in terms of architectural style, but the inside of the house had been fortified with steel beams and posts and other improvements that were not visible on the outside.

The old man used to heat water on his gas range and carry it to the bathroom to wash himself. The renovation team installed electrical wiring and an electric water heater in the bathroom, so Chen can now just turn on the faucet and get hot water for showers.

All the remodeling and structural fortification work was completed in less than a month, at a cost of about NT$140,000 (US$4,500). The team quickly and inexpensively created a better home for the old man that has greatly improved his quality of life.

Engineer Chen took comfort in being part of the team that helped the old man. Helping the less fortunate improve their living conditions gives him a great sense of achievement. Most of his college classmates are likely helping to build luxurious buildings or large-scale structures, but Chen feels at peace with what he has chosen to do. “In our repair projects, we’re clear about who’ll benefit from our work and who’ll make use of what we produce. A project typically doesn’t take much time, but we can quickly see improvement in the lives of those we help.” Using his expertise to serve people truly makes him happy.


Chen Qi-shi’s house before repair.

Chen Qi-shi’s house after repair.


Mother and daughters

A-rong is a factory worker from Vietnam. She has lived in Douliu, central Taiwan, since she married a man there. Her husband died of a heart attack two years ago, and she and their two daughters lived in a mud-brick house that was at least half a century old. The roof of the house was damaged and leaked badly. When it rained, the family had to use large containers to catch the rainwater that dripped from the ceiling. The mother and daughters carried out their daily activities and slept in a room that did not have a leak.

A bigger problem than the leaky roof was that they did not have a toilet in the house. The three of them had to walk 55 yards from the house to use an outdoor latrine. That was both inconvenient and unsafe for them at night, so sometimes the girls preferred to wait in discomfort until they went to school to use the toilet.

Volunteers made many improvements to the house. They put on a steel-tiled roof, put in a septic tank and toilet, and installed porcelain wall tiles in the bathroom to help deal with an old mold problem. They also converted a storage space into a bedroom so the teenage daughters could have their own room. The work took more than 30 days, and volunteers had put in 130 shifts by the time it was done. The repaired house now has two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a full bath that fully satisfies the basic needs of the three-person family.

Zhang Rui-zhu (張瑞珠) /has long been the Tzu Chi volunteer in charge of caring for A-rong and her two daughters. After the house was finished, A-rong told Zhang that when she and her daughters used to share a room, the lack of space was physically too close for comfort. As a result, they often bickered over small matters. Now that the girls have their own bedroom, the situation has greatly improved, and the girls have even made great strides in their schoolwork and grades. With an improved house and an improved life, A-rong no longer thinks about going back to Vietnam. Instead she has decided to stay put and work hard to bring up her daughters.

Not just to save money

Volunteers themselves do the work that is involved in a repair project whenever possible. That brings down costs. For example, Mr. Wu once tried to find people himself to fix his home and got an estimate of NT$700,000 (US$23,300). Then volunteers took on the repair project, provided the labor where they could, and hired outside help when necessary. They finished all the work at a cost of just half of that estimate. Mr. Wu’s son-in-law and Tzu Chi shared the NT$350,000 expenditures that had greatly improved Mr. Wu’s house.

When volunteers plan for a home repair project, they try to find materials and items that have better quality and are more durable rather than just go for the cheapest route. For example, a cheaper item may become unserviceable in five years, but an alternate, slightly more expensive item may last 20 years. Volunteers do that so that a disadvantaged family will not need to face another repair issue too quickly.

The care and attention to detail that volunteers dedicate to their projects have not gone unnoticed. Tzu Chi once helped renovate the home of a 90-year-old man. The man was impressed when he saw that the new gas range and toilet in his repaired home were brand-name items—the volunteers had not given him just any range or toilet. “These things are better than what we used to have,” he exclaimed.

Huang Wei-xuan (黃維軒), a Tzu Chi social worker, commented that about nine out of ten recipient families were very satisfied with what repair projects had done for their homes.

Aside from repairing houses for needy families, volunteers regularly visit them to provide care and help.


How it started

Tzu Chi now has paid staff stationed in regional offices to provide systematic house repair services to the needy, but in the old days these services were provided in a less organized manner. Back then volunteers, out of the goodness of their hearts, did what they could to help repair the homes of the needy as soon as they discovered the need. It was perhaps less well planned, but their efforts were carried out with just as much goodwill.

Senior volunteer Hong Xiu-e (洪琇娥) recalled helping an old man in Changhua, central Taiwan, some 20 years ago. The man’s house had nine broken windowpanes, which he had merely taped up with paperboard. That hardly kept out the chill on a cold day. Volunteers hurriedly measured the sizes of the panes and went to a glass shop to have them cut out nine pieces of glass. Then they returned to the old man’s house with the new windowpanes and installed them. “We did what we could to help,” Hong said.

Another time, volunteers in Yunlin, central Taiwan, came across an aid recipient whose house needed a lot of repair. The volunteers recruited more volunteers, and they enlisted the help of a house painter, an electrician, and a carpenter. The large group of workers arrived at the house in five vehicles. They cleaned and worked the whole day through and finally returned a better house to the 80-year-old woman who lived there.

Tzu Chi social worker Li Yu-hua (李玉華) of the Taipei Tzu Chi branch pointed out the importance of a sound and safe home. Imagine living in a dilapidated house with a leaky roof, and the sense of insecurity and fear that would incur. One may even be ashamed or feel a strong sense of inferiority for living in a house like that and for being powerless to improve the situation. But after a home is improved, people can sleep soundly through rainy nights; children can feel at ease inviting their friends or classmates over to their homes, something that they couldn’t do when their homes were in bad repair; and family members can spend the night at their parents’ home if they return for a visit. The relationships between family members may even improve with a better home. The good a home repair can do can never be underestimated.

Continued care

Chen Wen-liang serves central western Taiwan, an area from Miaoli in the north to Chiayi in the south. When he drives to his worksites and passes families that Tzu Chi has helped, he detours to check on their houses. “I want to know if they’ve stood the test of heavy rains or strong typhoons,” Chen said. He takes comfort in seeing houses that have held up well, and he learns from the problems in houses that have failed the test of time and the elements. “I want to know what went wrong so I’ll do better next time,” he said.

It was June, a time of year when it is very hot in the morning but very rainy in the afternoon. Such weather conditions often disrupt the schedule of a repair project. With more than 20 home repair cases going on concurrently, Chen and his team were a bit on edge.

Luckily, the house for Mr. Wu and his wife was finally ready for occupancy in late June. Over 20 volunteers gathered at the house early one morning to help the family celebrate. “The old house was a dump before, but it looks like new today,” veteran volunteer Lin Bing-qian (林秉謙) commented.

The repair team has preserved the house’s façade and a wall in one room. They were constructed with bamboo skeletons and clay, a traditional Taiwanese architectural style. However, the roof now rests on the firm support of eight steel beams, and several steel posts help support the house. Inside the house, a modern bathroom and kitchen provide useful services to the family. The couple’s daughter, who works and lives out of town, now has a comfortable bedroom to sleep in when she returns home to visit.

The foundation started helping the Wu family long before it repaired their home, and the care for the family will continue.

The Liao family poses with school teachers, classmates, and Tzu Chi volunteers who have gathered to celebrate the completion of repairs to their home.


In Yunlin and Changhua, central Taiwan, there are many traditional old homes whose walls were built of bamboo skeletons and clay. These houses are from an era when Taiwan was still a relatively poor society, when lives were hard and resources scarce. Abundant and inexpensive, bamboo and clay were used to build homes like these back in the old days.

When Tzu Chi staff and volunteers repair this type of home for needy people who can’t afford it, they strive to maintain the quaint appearance and old-time charm of the original structure—even though doing so invariably entails more work.

While the original look is preserved as much as possible, the interior of the house is strengthened and fortified with steel beams and posts. The finished product is a combination of tradition and modernity.

A mother and son in their restored bamboo skeleton home in Xizhou, Changhua



The special appearance of this restored home in Erlin, Changhua, has made it quite a unique sight in the community.



When an old roof leaks, the easiest way to solve the problem is by removing the tiles and installing a new roof. However, Tzu Chi volunteers in central Taiwan often choose to preserve the original roof tiles when they repair traditional old homes. In their quest to keep as much traditional architectural beauty as they can, they try not to do a wholesale removal of the old materials. They are like physicians who strive to retain as much of the original body as possible, excising only what absolutely cannot be saved.

Volunteers find craftsmen to repair the old roof tiles while they work to fortify the roof against rain. As a result, old houses that they have repaired have been able to emerge with much of their architectural style intact, even while they have provided the homeowners with a much improved shelter against the elements.




Before volunteers stepped in and repaired it, an old house in Yunlin was so rundown that the owner had to use several buckets to catch the rain.  



Despite the material abundance in modern Taiwan, homes can still be seen in outlying areas that lack even the most basic essentials, such as indoor bathrooms and kitchens. Occupants of some of these homes cook outdoors, which is very inconvenient when the weather is bad. When volunteers fix this kind of home, they try to make it so that the inhabitants can cook or take hot showers in comfort.

Some families have many children, and in others three generations may live together. In those cases, volunteers repartition the space so that family members may have separate bedrooms and more privacy.

When needed, volunteers also provide furniture and install kitchen equipment, such as gas ranges.

Now Mr. Zeng, of Sihu, Yunlin, can easily use the bathroom and the toilet in his home. Due to a congenital condition, his legs are severely atrophied and deformed. Though unschooled and illiterate, he is optimistic and sunny in disposition. He gets around on an electric scooter and sells joss paper at temples to support himself. When volunteers repaired his home, they lowered the toilet to suit his height and made the bathroom more accessible.



Mr. Guan, 86, lives alone in a rented room, one of 22 such units, ranging from 36 to 180 square feet in size, in an old building. The tenants are old, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged.

The bathrooms in this rental facility are communal. Tzu Chi volunteers installed handrails and grab bars in the bathrooms and hallways to help the residents steady themselves.

Statistics show that an exceedingly large portion of injuries among senior citizens in Taiwan can be attributed to falls that occur in unsafe homes where floors are slippery, rooms are dark, or thresholds are so high as to trip residents.

To pay for home safety improvement projects, disadvantaged senior citizens can apply for subsidies from government agencies or private organizations, such as the Hondao Senior Citizen’s Welfare Foundation or the Eden Social Welfare Foundation. Tzu Chi also works to improve safety in homes of needy seniors by installing handrails, grab bars, lighting, anti-slip floors, or access ramps for the handicapped.

Winter 2016