RATS scurry across the floor and gnawing sounds filter through the walls as Wong Kin, 69, distractedly brushes away a mound of brittle insect shells before climbing into his 'home' - a caged bedspace about a metre deep, a metre wide and not quite two metres long. He is a 'cageman'. About 3,000 other people live in this type of home for low-income single men, where fire safety is virtually non-existent, and living conditions are appalling. The Government has set up a law to rectify the problem, yet its action, according to social workers, may throw these people out into the streets. Mr Wong is a longtime resident of a cage hostel in Tai Kok Tsui, where this Sunday Morning Post writer also bedded down on Friday night. The third floor hostel at 26 Fuk Tsun Street is home to more than 100 low-income earners; the youngest is in his mid-30s, the oldest aged 92. The 1,500 square-feet hostel was once four separate apartments, but its interior walls were knocked out long ago to make one room. Here, each resident pays $430 rent each month to crowd into a cage - one of more than 130 triple-decker cages. I was allotted a cage close to the window side of the flat. Inspecting the space, Mr Wong insisted I had been favoured: it had fewer wood ticks. Climbing inside, I could sit down only while hunched over. On one of the planks wedged into the space for storage, someone had left a large jar of salted fish in oil, while in cracks between the boards and metal bedframe lay piles of wood tick shells. A cold wind blew through the flat, forcing shivering residents to bundle up in their coats. Yet some younger residents still braved the 10-degree Celsius chill to take a cold bath before bed. There was no hot running water, but in winter the men can pay $2 for a pot of boiled water. As 20-year-resident Ho Kuen, 65, began shaking his head over the number of wood ticks, a rat scurried along a corridor nearby and gnawing sounds emanated from the walls. Three prowling cats roamed around the flat, supplementing their diet of rodent with leftover rice and fish. 'In winter, the ticks are not as bad,' Mr Ho said, holding up a jacket crawling with insects. 'But during the summer they eat us alive.' A tenant beside Mr Ho had placed 10 packets of camphor in his bedspace to deter vermin. The odour of particularly potent mao tai (Chinese liquor) and stale tobacco fumes hung in the cold air. Despite 'no smoking' signs on the recently white-washed walls, residents smoked while huddled around the television, watching a rerun of a Leon Lai Ming concert. Many cages were plastered with newspapers and cloth to keep out the cold, while others were hung with old clothes. As the night progressed and the temperature dropped, the sense of decay - heightened by spasmodic coughing and spitting - became overwhelming. My despair grew in the hours before dawn, and I finally succumbed to the overwhelming desire to rush downstairs and head home. However, the 3,000 residents do not have such a choice, and soon they may be lucky to keep their cages. The Government has introduced the Bedspace Apartments Ordinance to improve fire safety and living conditions for these people, but it can be exploited by landlords to close unprofitable businesses. The law followed a fire at a single-male hostel in Shamshuipo four years ago, in which seven residents died and another 50 people were injured, including 13 firemen and an ambulance man. Many of the deaths occurred because fire exits were locked and stairwells and corridors blocked with rubbish and cooking utensils. Legislators decided controls and inspections would be fruitless unless a strict licensing system was introduced with the ordinance. Landlords will have to meet set fire safety measures and other requirements for licences to run the bedspace homes. They could apply for a two-year grace period, but some landlords, faced with high renovation expenses and lower profit margins, could close their businesses, sending their tenants into the street. SKH Kei Oi Social Service Centre social worker Paul Lam Wai-yuen said the ordinance was just a stopgap measure, and the Government faced an enormous problem of finding new homes for residents if hostels closed. Yet profitability is not the only reason why about 110 people may lose their cage homes in Kowloon City, To Kwa Wan, and Tai Kok Tsui. Their landlord Chung Man, 60, who is said to call himself the 'king of kings of cagemen hostels', plans to retire. But while he will tuck himself up in bed at night in his cosy flat in Cherry Apartments in Tai Kok Tsui, his tenants may find themselves sleeping in the street.