IT was chilly this Christmas Eve when a group of tai pai dong-goers were enjoying their late night meal to celebrate the festive season. 'Would you give me some noodles please?' a shabby old man carrying two plastic bags asked with a shaking voice. He asked twice and the party felt awkward. He was intruding on their festive mood. 'Oh no! He wants money. Just give him $20 and send him away,' said one of them, and another did. They thought the bum would quickly disappear into the dark. But he didn't. He took the money, wobbling his way to the cook to buy some food. Twenty minutes later, he came back with an expression of great gratitude, trying to return the change of $10 to the party - they had mistaken him, all he wanted was a bowl of hot food, and not the money. The party felt ashamed because they hadn't believed the old man was really feeling cold and hungry. So sheepishly, they urged him to keep the $10 and the man left with a big, contented smile. This is not a story. It is real. The incident took place on Sunday night at a quiet street corner close to where some homeless sleep. Many of us who don't have direct experience of poverty, when we are enjoying a $500 or $1,000 Christmas meal, tend to forget what a bowl of hot congee means to those who can't afford it. Our hearts have turned hard because we don't believe that there are other people who are indeed so unfortunate as to be homeless, penniless and helpless. Easily, we dismiss the homeless as a nuisance and an eyesore and say the Government should be responsible for clearing them off the streets as quickly as possible. But is doing that the ultimate solution? Is it shelter or money that they need? Or is it care or love that they want? By sheer coincidence, Christmas day television programmes featured three items on street sleepers - the movie Christmas on Division Street talked of the friendship between a teenager and an old homeless man; the current affairs programme Inside Story looked at Hong Kong's street sleeper problem and the programme Focus on Focus on a Chinese channel told of how a good-hearted family took care of a homeless old lady living in the cold in their neighbourhood. The message from the three programmes all harped on one theme - that the most important things the street-sleepers need are love, care, respect and dignity. Official statistics put their number at about 1,000 while voluntary agencies estimate the tally at well above 2,000. This seems to be a small number when compared with the six million population here. But that doesn't mean the community can just write off this group of unfortunate people. MANY refuse help and quite a large number have turned down offers to be housed in the street-sleepers' home. Some believe they can only live with dignity if they reject assistance, while others refuse to be housed because they hate feeling constantly intimidated when policemen inspect the shelters. On top of these difficulties, the complications involved in finding a solution for the street-sleeper problem include the fact that there are those who have been, or are still, drug addicts, or they have mental problems. Street-sleepers are a problem that government money alone cannot help. Feeding them and finding them shelter is not the ultimate solution. More importantly, many need rehabilitation - to get back their sense of value and the will to live a normal life. Counselling is important and that's why social workers have a role. But social workers alone cannot solve the problem either, because for these people to restore their sense of value, they need other people to treat them like human beings and not some worthless nuisance. Before they can behave normally, they need people walking past them to treat them like normal persons and not as some sort of disease. Over the years, Hong Kong has earned the reputation of being a charitable city and charity begins at home. If individuals start contributing to solving the street-sleeper problem, a quicker and better solution is more likely. On the day Jesus was born, there was no place for him and the Holy Mother at the inn. Hopefully, when we celebrated the festive season on Monday, we found room in our hearts for our less fortunate neighbours who need the care and love that Jesus preached.