Like it or not, street sleepers are part of our city. The government put the official homeless population at 414 in May last year, though the real numbers are likely to be much higher. Many have been deprived of shelter because of a mixture of financial and family problems. Some, however, simply decline any help and choose an alternative way of living.
As is the case elsewhere in the world, the local community does not make the homeless particularly welcome. But nor is their presence seen as a serious nuisance. Indeed, most people would not even bother to pause and take a look as they walk by. Although this attitude may not chime with Hong Kong's claim to be a compassionate and caring society, it does show our tolerance of people's right and freedom to live the way they want.
Our government claims that it is concerned about the needs of the homeless and pledges to help them get back on their feet by offering different support services. Sadly, its actions speak otherwise. Without prior warning, staff raided dwellers under a flyover in Sham Shui Po and threw away their belongings, including money, blankets and family photos in a clean-up operation early this year. It was only after nine months that the government accepted an out-of-court settlement to compensate these homeless people. The 17 plaintiffs - and the families of two who died after the case was filed - will each given HK$2,000. Regrettably, officials still refuse to apologise, even though the compensation suggests wrongdoing.
The law empowers the government to remove objects obstructing a street-cleaning operation. But staging raids against a harmless underclass has no place in a truly compassionate and tolerant city. The incident could have been avoided had common sense and sensitivity prevailed.
The episode is a reminder of the plight of the homeless. Why they end up living on the street involves complicated personal circumstances and social problems. But they break no law. What they need is help rather than merciless raids.