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Asylum seekers in Asia

How a Hong Kong charity helped a homeless Filipino musician get back on track

ImpactHK looks out for the city’s homeless, giving them a roof over their heads, jobs, and most of all, dignity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 8:25pm

Jose Raymundo M. Gabriel, 61, was once a successful bar singer and guitarist after moving to Hong Kong from the Philippines in 1981.

But seven years ago, the onset of diabetes took away his career, savings, and the roof over his head. He became homeless, sleeping in parks and on footbridges. Eventually, he had to send his five-year-old son to local charity Po Leung Kuk to be taken care of.

In his darkest moments, Gabriel thought he would die. “I thought I would go back to the Philippines in a box,” he said.

Last September, a turning point came when he met Jeff Rotmeyer, an English teacher who founded ImpactHK, a charity for the homeless. With its help, Gabriel got a haircut, moved into a subdivided flat two months ago, and started working as a guitar teacher.

Gabriel is one of the fortunate few among the city’s homeless foreigners. Although the government does not have related figures, a study carried out by local universities and NGOs in 2015 found 10 per cent of the 1,614 homeless people in Hong Kong were non-Chinese.

Over half of them came from Vietnam, while 19 per cent were from Nepal and 11 per cent from India. Many of them are asylum seekers, Rotmeyer said. “For example, in Happy Valley, you have a large Indian community. In Yau Ma Tei, you have the Nepalese, and in Sham Shui Po, you have the Vietnamese,” he said.

High Hong Kong rents and long public housing queues push more to homelessness

With the number of registered street sleepers climbing 17 per cent over the past three years, the plight of those from abroad could worsen as they lack the support of family and friends.

“I just clammed up and hid from everyone,” Gabriel said, referring to the time he was homeless. “I worried people would think I was lazy ... and I lost all contact with my family in the Philippines.”

Meeting Rotmeyer was an unexpected stroke of luck, Gabriel said.

He was invited to play the guitar at parties, slowly rebuilding his confidence. Rotmeyer, who moved to Hong Kong from Canada 13 years ago, became a “friend forever” to him.

ImpactHK was launched as a once-a-month charitable giveaway campaign one and a half years ago. It has grown into a registered charity with 2,000 volunteers, organising 30 “kindness walks” a month, during which volunteers distribute food, clothes, and toiletries to the homeless.

By March, the charity would have helped 10 homeless people move into flats and live independently, Rotmeyer said. It would give them counselling services, help them find flats and pay the deposits, as well as provide them with jobs at the charity.

“One day [Rotmeyer] came to me and said: ‘I have an apartment for you, and tonight you are going to stay there’,” Gabriel said, bursting into tears when he recalled the unforgettable moment. “I thought he was joking ... and then everything happened so fast.”

“Sometimes I ask him: ‘Why do you guys do this?’, and he would say: ‘Because I’m crazy’,” Gabriel said. “But no, he is not crazy. He just has so much passion, I don’t even know where it comes from.”

Gabriel now has two guitar students, and will work for ImpactHK to play music at prisons and elderly homes. His son was transferred to a school near his flat and will start living with him again soon.

“I would like to tell other homeless people not to lose hope,” Gabriel said. “No matter how they got there, just don’t give up.”