How kindness gave one street sleeper a new lease of life

Social workers, volunteers and a caring boss spurred outspoken homeless man to take a chance on a better future

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 10:08am

Last year, ex-street sleeper Chan Chi-cheung was given a second chance at life.

Chan, 61, was one of the 14 street sleepers who decided to risk public humiliation and sue the government for unlawfully throwing away their belongings in February last year.

Since then, he has found a steady job, moved into public housing, is volunteering on the streets where he used to live and gained a healthy 13.5 kilograms.

Chan admits he has a checkered past. At 21 he was sentenced to 18 years jail for manslaughter, since then he served about 20 jail terms for theft and drugs. If he wasn't in jail, he was living on the streets, begging or stealing for his next meal or next fix.

He kicked his heroin habit in November 2011 and was struggling to find a job when everything on his Sham Shui Po street corner was thrown away.

"I decided to stand up and face the public and go to court [about the injustice] because I want to find my family, tell them I'm still alive and trying to change," he said.

I decided to stand up and face the public and go to court [about the injustice] because I want to find my family, tell them I'm still alive and trying to change

A week after his story appeared in the newspapers, he had a job interview at a local shop. Chan said the owner immediately recognised him as a street sleeper. "So I thought, there goes the job," he said. "I was so surprised when he hired me. He said it was because of the articles, he supported us and wanted to give me a chance." Now after 14 months on the job, Chan earns HK$10,500 a month.

The government finally settled the case out of court 10 months later, with a HK$2,000 payment to each person, but not before two of the group died.

Chan was offered public housing in June last year and he said three of the 14 others had also moved into public housing.

But to Chan, the job, housing, getting off drugs were nothing compared with the people who made a difference in his life.

Social worker Ng Wai-tung had been there for him for more than a decade, never giving up on him even when he gave up on himself, Chan said.

Benson Tsang, a volunteer, bought him new furniture, paid his flat's deposit and rent for the first two months, but most importantly said he would "walk with me for a lifetime no matter what", Chan said.

"They were the turning point in my life. They cared enough to ask me how I was doing, to accept me as a brother. I had to live my life better. If I could change, I'm sure many more [street sleepers] could too, if there were more people like [Ng and Tsang] and my boss who will give us a chance."

Now Chan wants to reconnect with his wife and two children, with whom he had lost contact 30 years ago.

"Chan's experience is rare among street sleepers," Ng said. "But it showed that it's possible. The sad thing is Hong Kong society can be very discriminating against those with a past or those who are poor and lowly."

A photo exhibition entitled "Home, Street Home" organised by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) started yesterday at the Schoeni Art Gallery on Hollywood Road to raise awareness of homelessness. The exhibition is part of the annual Artwalk event to be held tonight. A group of 71 galleries in Central will open their doors to those with Artwalk tickets, and more than 60 per cent of the proceeds will go SoCO to help the poor.

"We are not aware of the homeless situation, because these people are invisible to most Hongkongers," Ng said. "You only see the older ones on some street corners, but there is a growing number of people in their 20s and 30s who appear at night."