Financial downturn forces Hongkongers back home - and onto the streets

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am

Nicon Lam had less than HK$3 in his pocket when he returned to Hong Kong from a failed business on the mainland in February last year. The following month he was sleeping in parks.

The 55-year-old Hong Kong businessman left the city 13 years ago for opportunities on the mainland. At his peak, Lam owned three restaurants and was worth tens of millions of dollars. Yet all that had vanished during the financial meltdown. A return home was his last option.

Lam, however, was not alone. A growing number of people have been forced to sleep on the city's streets.

A survey by the Society for Community Organisation between October and December last year found that 37 homeless people, out of 116 interviewed, said they had been working on the mainland. Another four worked in Macau.

The society's Ng Wai-tung, who has been helping homeless people since 1999, said many Hongkongers lost their jobs on the mainland during the meltdown and ended up homeless when they returned. 'These people did not fall into the safety net even though they are permanent Hong Kong residents,' he said.

Most of them would find their applications for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance rejected, Ng said, because applicants are required to have been in the city for at least a year.

Lam, who has now been granted the assistance on discretion, said the welfare system was unfair. 'I also paid tax for years before I left for the mainland but the government is reluctant to help when I am in need.'

The survey also found an alarming trend of 'recurrent street-sleepers'. Half of the interviewees said they had been forced onto the street at least once before when they lost jobs during downturns.

About 70 per cent of the homeless said they had received secondary education or above, and the average age for those interviewed was 43.5 years old.

The number of homeless people the Social Welfare Department registered fell slightly from a record 440 last August to less than 400 in recent months, but Ng estimated the real figure could exceed 1,000 because many were unwilling to register.

A department spokesman said the government was concerned about the needs of homeless people and it would increase the number of short-term accommodation placements by at least 5 per cent by next month. It provides subsidies for 192 homeless people in six centres.