Damage-control bid after storm over Sham Shui Po homeless

Government departments forced to say how much they admire work of care providers after officials accuse them of aggravating problem

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 8:45am

Two government departments released damage-control statements yesterday after officials blamed good-hearted citizens for aggravating the homeless problem in Sham Shui Po by feeding and caring for people sleeping in the streets.

The response by the departments of Home Affairs and Social Welfare followed angry comments from care providers who slammed the officials' remarks as "nonsense" and demanded an apology. The departments said they appreciated the work of the providers and did not mean to blame the street-sleeper problem on anyone.

Public outrage was ignited after remarks by the two officials at a meeting of the Sham Shui Po District Council on Tuesday.

District officer Benjamin Mok Kwan-yu said individuals and groups buying hot meals and caring for the homeless had encouraged them to move in from other districts. Assistant district social welfare officer Lee Yuen-hung said the activities had "lowered the incentive for street sleepers to take government help to move off the streets".

Lee said that while many organisations, individuals and local restaurants "use a lot of love to care for the street sleepers", they should think before they feed the poor.

"A lot of the incentives they provide are even bigger than the incentives [the government] gives," he said.

Ng Wai-tung, an organiser for the Society for Community Organisation who has been helping street sleepers for 20 years, said this rationale was "complete nonsense".

"Do you really think that a person would be willing to spend eight hours sleeping on the street, just to line up for 30 minutes for a meal box?

"[The officials] really do not know what it's like sleeping on the streets," Ng said.

Benson Tsang Chi-ho helps to organise a monthly gathering where close to 600 Hongkongers provide hot meals and friendly conversation to the poor in Sham Shui Po.

He said: "We not only feed street sleepers, we feed elderly and poor families too.

"We've been doing the government's job more effectively than they have, and we are criticised for that."

Chan Cheuk-ming, whose restaurant provides hot meals to the poor, said the officials owed an apology to hundreds of Hongkongers who helped to improve the lives of poor people in Sham Shui Po.

"We had no intention of blaming the street sleeper issue on anyone else," the Social Welfare Department said.

"[The department] has always admired the love and compassion of groups and individuals [doing such work] and we welcome having them co-operate with the government in helping street sleepers leave poverty."

A spokesman for Home Affairs' Sham Shui Po district office said the care for street sleepers was much appreciated.

Mok had merely been stating "certain concerns about the street-sleeping issue that he had heard previously", the spokesman said.