Hong Kong streets no place to call home, unless there's nowhere else

No-one knows for sure how many people live rough on Hong Kong's streets. It's fairly certain, though, that their numbers are rising

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 1:58pm

Few would choose to live on the streets if there was a better place to go.

But it took a court case last year, in which 19 street sleepers sued the government for confiscating and disposing of their personal belongings without notice, to turn the media and the public's attention to the plight of Hong Kong's most destitute.

Social workers estimate there are more than 1,000 Hongkongers who have been reduced to sleeping in cardboard boxes on pavements, receiving occasional lunch boxes handed out by non-profit organisations while society largely turns a blind eye to their fate.

The court case dragged on for 10 months, during which time two street sleepers died without getting justice. In November, the surviving 17 claimants were finally awarded HK$2,000 each.

The proceedings allowed observers to put names, faces and stories to this previously "invisible" group of homeless people. It was the first time that street sleepers were willing to publicly declare their identity.

The Chan brothers are among those who sued the government. Both saw their lives go downhill at an early age.

Chan Kwok-kei, 58, was the eldest of six children. He blames himself for being on the streets.

"I was a bad child," he said. "I'd often skip school, go out and have fun, and I got in with the wrong crowd. Then I started dabbling in triad business and smoking heroin when I was about 19."

Growing up in a wooden shack in one of Hong Kong's now extinct squatter areas was tough, said Chan.

"It was a rough area, and our family was very poor," he said.

Because of his drug habit, Chan found himself in and out of jail in his youth.

"It got so bad that I couldn't face my mother," he said, on why he couldn't return to live with his family. He would visit them once in a while on the Choi Hung Estate, but for the most part a deep feeling of shame kept him away.

He was ordered to attend drug rehabilitation centres five times, then volunteered for treatment another five times. He would stay clean for a few years, but then slowly return to his habit. Now, he says, he has stayed clean for a few months.

Chan lived in subdivided cubicles for two years, but couldn't stand the filthy, bug-ridden space, while the rent consuming most of his limited money. So he ended up on the streets.

"You sample all there is to taste in life on the streets," he said. "There are the sweet things - well, not exactly sweet - when people give you things, the sourness of not having a home, the bitterness of having police search your body, disrespect you and sneer at you," said Chan. He has been told to strip naked in a back alley, he says, and was even beaten by police.

His younger brother, 56-year-old Chan Kwok-cheung, also said his rough childhood was the reason he ended up on the streets.

"It's not easy out here. You face the wind and rain. The noise and traffic is hard to stomach. There are people who would come and bother us too, especially when they're drunk. I've had people steal my stuff - clothes and other things - twice," he said.

The younger Chan had steady, if low-paid work in factories in the days before Hong Kong's manufacturing relocated to the mainland. He worked for the longest time in the textile industry, but also spent time in woodworking and furniture making.

But by 1996 he was unemployed and survived on odd jobs or manual labour that was paid by the day. Chan now gets by on welfare handouts, and has been on the waiting list for public housing for two years.

He is just as desperate to get off the streets as his brother.

"A lot of street sleepers are on drugs - whenever they can afford it," said the younger brother, who hopes to leave behind this environment and start afresh.

The longer a person stays on the streets, the harder it becomes for them to leave.

Moses Wang Shing-mo, a social worker with the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, said that once a person had lived rough for more than six months and become accustomed to the way of life, it became much harder to motivate them to change.

The association cares for homeless people in the New Territories and Kowloon, but not the Yau Tsim Mong district which is looked after by another group.

Outreach workers from the association, who are in regular contact with about 500 homeless people, say the ranks of street sleepers are growing. According to a report released by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) on Christmas Day, many of the newcomers moved onto the streets for economic reasons - they can no longer afford to pay their rent - rather than the deep-rooted personal problems that affected people like the Chan brothers.

SoCO also noted that some homeless people who had managed to leave the streets were also returning, including many who had been pushed out by soaring rents and a dwindling supply of accommodation.

Many others chose to sleep on the streets rather than endure the terrible living conditions of the cubicles, Wang said.

"And, with urban renewal, prices of cubicles have shot up as the old buildings that housed them are demolished to make room for redevelopment. More people can't afford cubicles now.

"The problem is growing and getting worse, and we are not dealing with the situation in an in-depth way."

What homeless people need most, said Wang, is community support to give them hope of a better future.

"A lot of people would think that [street sleepers] need material things like clothes and food, but actually those are secondary," Wang said. "What is lacking is people who actually care enough to spend time with street sleepers and walk with them through their problems and difficulties."

Wang believes that Hong Kong has about 1,000 homeless people, far more than the government estimate of 555. The official estimate is grossly inaccurate, and does not reflect the real situation, he said.

There were complicated reasons why homelessness persisted for so long, even as Hong Kong became wealthier, Wang said .

Many of the homeless have serious personal problems - such as drug or alcohol addiction and mental illness - that require years of counselling and relationships to make any sort of progress. While 80 per cent of the homeless people that Wang comes into contact with are on welfare, bad habits also keep them poor.

"Would increasing public housing or providing low-cost living quarters really help the homeless leave the streets for good? I'm not so sure," he said.

This is why Wang stressed the importance of society maintaining greater contact with the homeless.

"In areas with lots of street sleepers, the locals and homeless seem to lead different lives. They live in two different worlds even though they share the same community," Wang said.

"If we want to help them to leave street life permanently, it has to be by using our lives to affect theirs - to change the way they think. It is a long, gruelling process, which often doesn't see results for years."

At the end of December, social workers, Christian volunteers and street sleepers gathered under a highway overpass in Sham Shui Po for a memorial service for street sleeper Leung Chi-ming.

Leung, one of the two complainants who died without receiving government compensation, was a childhood friend of the Chan brothers.

The elder Chan had reconnected with him in jail, while both were serving time for drug offences. They met later on the streets of Yau Ma Tei.

"I don't want to end up like him. I don't want my life to end like this," Chan said, looking at his childhood friend's photograph, framed by flowers and candles. "It's hard, but I want a new start."