Sleeping rough

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2009, 12:00am

Thomas David Finland loves McDonald's, especially the one in Sham Shui Po. But not because of the food, it's because the manager lets him sleep there overnight.

'Most managers ask you to leave, but the ones in Sham Shui Po and Tai Po are nice,' says Mr Finland, who had a British father and a Cantonese mother.

'But when it rains they won't kick you out. One night when it was raining I woke up next to twenty-odd guys sleeping around me.'

Mr Finland's life wasn't always about looking for a place to sleep at night. But last year he lost his casino job in Macau, a result of the economic downturn, and returned in January without any savings, friends or family to turn to.

Relative to other big cities, Hong Kong has a small number of homeless people. Mr Finland is one of an estimated 400 homeless people in Hong Kong, if you believe the government's figures (experts say the real number is at least twice this amount).

Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser for the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), said most people were not willing to register via a detailed, four-page survey for which they do not receive any compensation, because they didn't think it would do any good.

But as the recession trudges on, Hong Kong's streets are quietly filling up with homeless who have less government support to share among themselves.

These days the best long-term help street sleepers can do get is to apply for social welfare (CSSW), which takes 309 days to process. People such as Mr Finland cannot even apply for it because of a requirement that applicants must have been in the country for at least 56 days.

'It's outrageous,' said lawmaker Ip Wai-ming. 'During the last 10 years the government has encouraged people to go to the mainland for better jobs, better prospects. Now when they return after being laid off from their factory jobs, they are told to wait a year for any help.'

Alternatively homeless people can turn to one of three integrated services teams (IST) funded by the Social Welfare Department. The ISTs were set up in 2004 to provide immediate, short-term support. The homeless can apply for 'emergency funds' while waiting for their CSSW applications to be processed.

But Mr Finland said it was virtually impossible to receive immediate help. IST shelters require applicants to take a chest X-ray first, which involved a three-day wait for lab results. 'Where would I sleep during those three days?' he asked.

Government support was better during the early part of the decade, or the end of the Asian financial crisis, when the number of street sleepers peaked at 1,203. The Home Affairs Department subsidised cheap, long-term living quarters for roughly HK$400 a month. This scheme ended in 2004 when the numbers started to fall (by December 2005, this had dropped to 529). Mr Ng said the cheapest long-term housing presently available was HK$1,800 a month for 30-40 sqft of space.

'I think landlords are just taking advantage of them. Per square foot, the cost is almost as high as a high-end property,' he said.