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Death in McDonald's shows welfare system is failing to help the homeless

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 1:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 1:48am

The death of a homeless woman at a 24-hour McDonald's outlet has once again thrown the spotlight on the plight of such people. The woman was found dead at the Kowloon Bay restaurant after she sat at the same spot without anyone noticing for a whole day. The incident may have drawn unwanted publicity to McDonald's. But the fast-food chain's policy of allowing people to stay a long time on its premises is actually quite humane.

Even non-paying customers and those buying very little may stay in McDonald's. As a result, some outlets have become sanctuaries for the elderly, students and, of course, the homeless. Hot water is even provided to them upon request. Most fast-food chains in Hong Kong apply subtle pressure to make customers leave once they finish their meals.

While Hong Kong does not have a large population of homeless people, the number is nevertheless significant and reflects badly on our social welfare policy. The Social Welfare Department has 806 homeless registered, double the 393 recorded in 2010. What accounts for this disturbingly fast growth in the official numbers? And according to the Society for Community Organisation, one of the most respected in Hong Kong, the real figure may even be 1,500 people.

On paper, we have sufficient resources to care for them. There are three non-governmental organisations - funded by the department to the tune of HK$11.4 million a year - that cater to the homeless. These groups run five urban hostels and two emergency shelters, providing a total of 202 places. The department itself offers short-term hostel placement, employment advice and emergency relief funds to cover short-term rent payments and other living expenses. The Housing Department is supposed to offer public housing to those without an income and in need of a permanent home.

One problem is that department workers are rarely proactive in reaching out to homeless people, many of whom have psychiatric problems. And the services run by NGOs have been criticised as so restrictive that they deter usage. Meanwhile, street cleaning units are often merciless in throwing away their belongings.

It's the system itself that needs an overhaul.