Ah Sam always has sleepy eyes. His skin is yellow like wax, his hair grey. Scars from mosquito bites and working mark his hands and arms. When he takes off his grey-and-yellow coat, an odour spreads.
He is one of about 35 people who sleep in front of the Jade Market, part of the Tung Chau Street Temporary Market in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest districts in Hong Kong. Fifteen Vietnamese refugees also sleep there, and about 10 in the parks nearby, he said.
Ah Sam, 48, does not give his real name because he said he felt ashamed and did not want his family to know his situation.
A nonprofit organisation, the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), said about half of Hong Kong’s street sleepers find shelter in Sham Shui Po, of an estimated 1,200 in the city. The Social Welfare Department, which keeps a Street Sleepers Registry, reported 595 homeless people citywide in March.
Sham Shui Po has long been a hub of activity. Hundreds of hawkers sold jade on its streets before the government set up the Jade Market in 2005 to clean up the environment. But business has cooled in recent years; as much as 70 per cent of the Tung Chau Street Temporary Market is unoccupied, according to a property agency. Many stall owners complain about the street sleepers nearby.
Lately, street sleepers have heard of rumours that the Jade Market may be demolished because of the slow business. The district Environment Hygiene Office said it was still waiting for an official response from the government.
Outside the Jade Market, mattresses are strewn on the damp ground under a flyover. Blankets, clothes and towels hang on advertisement boards. Old chairs and tables, boxes, basins and plastic bottles are scattered about. This is where Ah Sam and his fellow street sleepers live.
“I have been staying here for eight months,” he said. “I have rented a room but it is filled with lice. They bite me when I try to sleep. So I have to sleep under the flyover.”
In addition to a HK$1,800 monthly government grant, Ah Sam sometimes gets part-time jobs and can earn about HK$2,400 each month. He mops floors, picks up rubbish and sells aluminium cans. “The money is enough for me,” he said. “If you are willing to work, you won’t starve to death in Hong Kong.”
The government hands out various amounts of aid to the homeless depending on their age and personal condition. Chan Kam-fei gets HK$3,200 a month, because he is over 60.
Joey, 30, the only female street sleeper there, is waiting to see what she can get. She said she was still going through the government’s time-consuming examination process, which involves residency requirements and financial tests. At the Jade Market, sometimes she takes free meals provided by charities, and sometimes she starves.
Some of the street sleepers have applied for public housing, but they are all on the waiting list. “The government said we needed to wait three years,” Ah Sam said, “but I have been waiting for four or five years.”
Turning a new leaf
Ah Sam has had a tumultuous past. He became a gangster in his early teens and started to take heroin. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, he collected protection fees for his triad, dealt heroin, organised prostitution rings and was involved in gang fights. Once, he was caught for taking heroin and sent to an addiction treatment centre in Hei Ling Chau, an outlying island of Hong Kong.
Ah Sam has also sold smuggled cigarettes, lent money on usury and made a fortune. He bought three apartments and two cars and got married. “There was a moment of peace,” he said, “and I thought of being a good guy.”
But drug addiction haunted him. He stopped taking heroin for some time but relapsed soon after. When his cigarette supplier was arrested, Ah Sam’s business went under and poverty came. He didn’t have enough money to buy heroin, and he made a living by driving a truck for a while.
Ah Sam stopped taking heroin four years ago, but he relies on Dormicum, a prescription drug commonly referred as “blue elf” in Cantonese. It is used by doctors to treat severe insomnia and relieve addiction problems. After taking the medicine, he looks dull and feels sleepy. Last year, he left home.
“I didn’t want to influence my wife and my son in a bad way,” he said.
Many of the street sleepers are recovering drug addicts like Ah Sam.
“Grasshopper”, 57, has been in and out of jails many times for drug charges and selling pirated DVDs. “Snake”, a middle-aged man who recently left the Jade Market to rent a room, took heroin and ruined his career as a hairdresser.
For many, drug addiction and sleeping on the streets have hurt their health and dignity – which has not helped them get jobs either.
“It’s not that we don’t try,” Grasshopper said. “It’s that once [the employers] see us, they turn us down.”
Another reason Ah Sam sleeps on the street is for atonement.
“Selling drugs, organising prostitution, fighting – these are all the things I need to atone for,” he said. He can also protect the old street sleepers from being bullied and sometimes give food coupons to those who were hungry, he added.
Ah Sam didn’t believe in Christianity until two years ago. Seeking to change himself, he was baptised after attending church groups. “[It’s] because of my son,” he said of his 11-year-old. “I thought about how my son would think of me, so I decided to change.”
Looking ahead, Ah Sam said he was thinking of helping Ping, a warm-hearted woman who sometimes cooks soup for the street sleepers and provides him with part-time jobs. He wanted to help her to expand her cleaning business, which would provide more jobs to the street sleepers. He also hoped to be completely rid of prescription drugs someday too.
“Living without any medication means full recovery from drug addiction,” he said. “I want to be a normal person.”
If the Jade Market is demolished, Ah Sam will go back to his bug-ridden room. “Where else can I go?” he said.
Video produced by Yanni Zhang, Vicky Feng, Wendy Luo and Phyllis Lam. They are student journalists at Hong Kong Baptist University.