Beijing's homeless get touch of warmth

Street sleepers who came to petition for justice lose winter quilts and coats in official raid – then volunteers show up bearing gifts of relief

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 4:45am

When Dong Meihua and other volunteers for the homeless arrived at the Yongdingmen long-haul bus station in Beijing carrying quilts, overcoats and snacks on Monday, they were quickly surrounded by some 30 grateful faces.

The group of homeless living at the bus station had become increasingly desperate since Dongcheng district street and sanitation authorities launched a weekend vagrancy crackdown that, they said, saw their blankets and much of their winter clothes taken away.

"They stared at us like they were greeting their liberators. Many actually had tears falling down their cheeks," Dong, 51, said. "They said they felt that authorities didn't want them to live after law enforcement officials earlier confiscated their belongings."

Dong's volunteer group, A Helping Hand In The Street, which was founded last year by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor Yu Jianrong , went to the bus station with relief supplies after learning about the incident, she said.

Dongcheng district authorities deny that they took the homeless people's belongings by force, claiming they merely collected what the street people left behind.

The episode has nevertheless called attention to the plight of the homeless living in the capital through what has so far been the coldest winter in nearly three decades.

Aid volunteers say a vast majority of the homeless are petitioners from outside the city who have come to air grievances against their hometowns. As non-residents of Beijing, they do not qualify for long-term shelter placements, but they refuse to return home until someone responds to their complaints.

Dong said it broke her heart to see more than two dozen people, some with physical disabilities, living in squalor at the bus station. But it was the sight of one man in his 80s that she found the most wrenching.

She learned that the man had come from her home province, Liaoning , in the hope of petitioning the government.

He had been living on the street ever since his home was demolished a decade ago. "He said he came to Beijing to have a bit of hope of staying alive and the hope of getting some help from the government one day," Dong said.

"I just couldn't understand how we could still see homeless people like him in such a powerful country with many super-rich people."

The volunteer group said it had identified about 150 of the homeless living on Beijing's streets.

Sun Yongping , a lawyer who has volunteered for the group for nearly a year, estimates that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the homeless are petitioners coming to Beijing for justice.

Sun said the issues surrounding homelessness in the city were clear, albeit complicated. Still, authorities have made few attempts, apart from crackdowns, to hear their grievances or otherwise tackle the problem.

Zhou Runmei , a 30-year old office worker who joined the volunteer group over the summer, said the government should provide these people with nursing home facilities.

"They'd rather stay in Beijing than go back because they're still homeless back in their former hometowns," Zhou said.

She once met a man in his 60s who thanked her many times because he mistook her for a woman who deposited money with a street vendor to pay for a pancake every time he was hungry. The man, like Zhou, was from the Liaoning city of Dandong .

"I told him with my hometown dialect to keep his overcoat on all the time and to keep his food in his pockets, so inspectors wouldn't take them away next time," she said. "He listened to me attentively and understood what I said."