The city's homeless population will get worse if the government continues to ignore pleas for more affordable public housing for single people, the Society for Community Organisation (SoCo) warns.
'Our chief executive said when he was overseas that everyone in Hong Kong has a roof over the heads,' said a social worker. 'He was either being optimistic for the future or he was lying. But if he is hoping to achieve this, his government will have to make more of an effort.' There were more than 500 homeless people in the city last month, according to the government's estimates, but the real number is at least double that figure, says Ng Wai-tung of Soco.
In addition, street sleepers are getting younger, with their average age falling to 43 in 2010 from 50 in 1999, Ng says.
Social workers say even more people will become homeless because of rising rents for even the cheapest housing options, the lengthy waiting list for public housing for single people and the lack of government assistance for the working poor. The monthly cost of a bed space in a private building starts at HK$1,300, while cubicles start at HK$1,700.
These prices are expected to climb as more old buildings are redeveloped and illegally partitioned ones are torn down, leaving fewer options for affordable housing.
Indeed, conditions in such cramped spaces can get so bad that some people may see life on the streets as a better option.
'It's impossible for welfare recipients and low-income earners to find a place to live,' Ng said. Temporary housing and shelters were often full.
In Sham Shui Po, some homeless people are suing the government over its first 'clean-up' operation on February 15, in which police confiscated their belongings without warning. Ten of the homeless people affected filed individual cases against the government with the Small Claims Tribunal early this month. The tribunal has set May 24 and 25 as tentative dates for their cases.
Lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung has blasted the government for allocating only 2,000 flats to single people a year when there are about 56,000 in need of public housing. They would have to wait 20 years, he said.