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The lonely life of the McSleepers, the poor who call McDonald's home

Poverty, rising rents and poor living conditions have led to people sleeping in a McDonald's, a plight highlighted by a woman's death in one

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 3:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 3:20am

The phenomenon of McSleepers or McRefugees - people who spend their nights in 24-hour branches of the popular fast-food chain - is a manifestation of growing social isolation caused by deprivation and poverty in the context of soaring private rents and bad living conditions, experts say.

With the government failing to take responsibility for the situation and as relatively cheap housing becomes more unliveable and expensive, the poor are susceptible to adopting such a lifestyle - which can result in longer-term problems such as mental health issues, they say.

"I used to sleep at my home but finding out that I can sleep here - it's quite lively, with the young people playing around here and others like me," said Auntie Chan, 62.

The laughing teenagers in the corner were regulars at the McDonald's at 3am, she said, but they eventually went home. Even if no one really talked to her, it was better than being at home alone, she added.

Chan has a round face covered in wrinkles and boney fingers which grip her walking-stick handle tightly. She doesn't have a phone, nor does she have air conditioning at home, in order to save money. Chan rents a room on the second floor of an old tenement building in Tsuen Wan, where she keeps her things. She said bed bugs "crawl everywhere".

Chan cried when asked about her housing woes, saying: "A few thousand dollars every month for four hard walls around me. I don't know [if I can continue to afford this]. But I don't want to talk about it any more."

The woman who was found dead in a 24-hour McDonald's in Kowloon Bay early last month also had a home, according to the police. Relatives came to claim her body eight to 10 days later.

"Sleeping out - or roughing it - is a dangerous slippery slope to go down," said Wong Hung, associate professor in social work at Chinese University.

Many start this lifestyle because they are pushed out by high rents, as well as the deteriorating living conditions within the shrinking number of affordable housing units available. "It's having a 'home' but unable to return. Technically they are street sleepers, because they sleep in McDonald's - which is pretty much a public space," Wong said.

Veteran social worker Ng Wai-tung from the Society for Community Organisation said those who slept in McDonald's tended to be cleaner, with some having jobs. He said they tended to have "higher standards".

Ng said while street sleeping was a complicated matter, there were steps to tackle it - starting with providing good and affordable housing within the city centre for working-class single people who are still trying hard to work in cleaning, construction and other low-skilled jobs.

"I used to live in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po four years ago," said Leung Ming, 48. "At first it was affordable at around HK$1,000, then it became more expensive and I felt it wasn't worth it. It was dark and dirty. McDonalds is quite nice. At least it's clean."

Leung has been sleeping full-time in a Sham Shui Po McDonald's for four years now. As a cleaner and on partial Comprehensive Social Security Assistance for low-income adults, he has a monthly income of HK$6,000 to HK$10,000, depending on how many hours he gets to work. Leung said he picked the Sham Shui Po McDonald's because of its convenience: "My work isn't stable and very often I don't know the time and location of my job until that day."

He turned down offers of public rental housing three times as the flats on offer were all in inaccessible places.

"Homelessness starts off as a housing problem in Hong Kong. Yet the government still does not see the need," said Ng. "We've lobbied for years to have places in the city redeveloped as affordable single housing ... but instead places are redeveloped into luxury estates."

Older areas in the city - like Sham Shui Po and Tai Kok Tsui - have long been a major source of cheap housing for the working class, but the government has been redeveloping such areas, cutting the cheap housing supply and driving up prices.

Now a bedspace costs at least HK$1,800 to over HK$2,000, while a subdivided room usually goes for over HK$3,000.

But what is even more serious is the problem of social isolation, which eventually has a huge effect on mental health.

Wong said alcoholism, drugs and gambling were issues seen among the homeless around the world, but the McRefugee phenomenon in the city was caused mainly by housing, poverty and isolation.

"The core issue of homelessness isn't just a physical one. Even if physical housing is provided for people, it does not deal with the issue of isolation and human loneliness," said Wong.

"It's okay in the first year or two of rough sleeping, but stepping into the fourth and fifth year, it's hard not to have some sort of mental issues as well as other illnesses."

While the cost of housing pushed people out on to the streets - or into McDonald's - it was loneliness which kept them there, said Wong.

This then begins a vicious cycle. Poverty leads to deprivation - the lack of money means fewer opportunities to join social gatherings. The lack of a job also leads to limited resources, which also minimises social interaction.

The single working poor were most susceptible to falling into this hole, said Ng, who has been working with the homeless for over a decade.

"You don't sleep well so you doze off at work; you're a bit more unkempt. Your boss may fire you and then without an address, it's hard to find a new job," said Ng.

Wong suggested that the government should think of trying out social housing - small affordable flats with communal spaces, mandatory counselling as well as simple medical check-ups.

"Start off by building a communal space in the city - we don't even have that. A space with free meals, areas where people can gather and chat, form a sense of belonging. That's a place where they can always hang out" he said. "But I know that many district councils and neighbourhood groups are against it - it's terrible. It's a not in my backyard mentality.

"But I hope people remember that one day, that could be you. If we accept them back into society earlier, there are fewer problems later."

Additional reporting by Gloria Chan