Young, educated people tipped to join ranks of the homeless
Welfare groups say the government should prepare for a new class of young and relatively well-educated people joining the ranks of street sleepers in Hong Kong, which are expected to grow as the recession forces more people into poverty.
Usually, most street sleepers are single elderly men or drug addicts.
But food banks have said they are already dealing with former professional and middle-class people who have fallen on hard times, and social workers say some of these could end up on the streets.
'The situation still looks okay because the unemployed can still live on their savings for several months,' said Ng Wai-tung, a veteran Society for Community Organisation worker with rough sleepers. 'After that, when they can no longer afford rents or mortgages, they might be forced out of home.'
The Social Welfare Department estimated there were 351 registered street sleepers in Hong Kong as of September 30, up from 327 at the end of last year.
But Mr Ng said the official estimates were far from accurate.
'The problem isn't a problem at all if you look at the official figures. But to get registered as a street sleeper, you have to answer four full pages of questions. You will be asked about your education level, work experience, street-sleeping experience and particulars of your family members,' he said.
'Even we social workers are lucky enough to get someone who is patient enough to talk with us for some 45 minutes to complete the questionnaire.' He said people would not be considered street sleepers if it could not be confirmed that they had slept on the streets for 14 consecutive days.
Wong Hung-sang, service manager at another welfare group, the St James Settlement, agreed.
'During the burst of the IT bubble around the turn of the century, we saw younger, more educated people forced to sleep in the streets,' he said, adding that the Social Welfare Department should be on the alert.
Mr Ng said: 'The officials should not sit back in their offices and expect street sleepers to go to their offices to ask for help. If they are willing to ask others for help, maybe they do not need to sleep in the streets.'
A food bank managed by the St James Settlement said recently that some former high-fliers had approached it for free food after being laid off.
The department says it provides outreach services, counselling, financial and accommodation assistance, referral for medical treatment and other services to street sleepers.
'Street sleepers can approach the [integrated team] and the nearest integrated family service centre or integrated services centre,' the department said.