When the little girl wriggled out of her father's arms and started running, passers-by on the bridge avoided her as if she had the plague. 'Where are you going?' shouted Hengheng's father anxiously. But three-year-old Hengheng seemed oblivious. She kept running, stopped to pick something up and then ran back laughing, into the old beggar's arms - clutching an empty bottle somebody had just dropped. Hengheng became one of the millions of homeless children across the country last year when she came to Beijing with her father. But that will change if she and her father accept the benefit provided under a new regulation that comes into effect from next month. The new law requires local governments to provide temporary shelter to beggars and vagrants. The regulation replaces a 1982 rule that allowed police to round up homeless people and send them to detention centres, where they were held until their families paid 'penalty fees' to the police. 'I was forced to leave my home, because my house was razed by evil men,' the girl's father complained. He said he was accused of violating the government's one-child policy and could not afford the bribes demanded by officials. He insisted that Hengheng was his only daughter and that he had been treated unjustly. He spends every Monday at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which acts as the anti-corruption watchdog and public complaint office, to try to get justice. Hengheng plays around the reception area during that time, listening to the complaints and wrangles the grown-ups have with the receptionists. The rest of the week she begs on the streets with her father, drinking water from a nearby well and eating scraps. She usually sleeps on the open ground near the gate of the reception office with others who come to lodge their complaints. On rainy days, she will move somewhere into the corridor to sleep, tucking herself in her father's arms. 'She won't catch a cold. I have a quilt,' her father says. Unable to bear the abject poverty in Yunmeng county, Hubei province, Hengheng's mother eloped - without divorcing her husband - not long after Hengheng was born. Although brought up on powdered milk and without a mother's care, Hengheng looks energetic and healthy, with a ready laugh. Numerous children roam the streets of almost every big city on the mainland. But Hengheng should consider herself luckier than others. Homeless children usually are driven to robbery for survival, according to Tong Lihua, director of China Youth's Legal Aid Centre. 'Without a shelter, a large number of the children could turn to crime,' said Mr Tong, who is also a lawyer. There are officially more than 120 shelters for homeless children in the country, housing between 20 and 300 children each. But this number 'is far from enough', said Mr Tong. Li Xiaoping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said: 'Lots of street children end up falling prey to criminal groups. Some of them get exploited at an early age.' Poverty and family separation are believed to be two major causes driving children out of home. But Professor Li does not believe that the emergence of migrant workers - rural labourers seeking work in cities - should be blamed for the increase in the number of homeless children. 'As far as I know, few migrant workers will let their children wander on street and beg, unless they have no other choice,' he said. Statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs show there are about 150,000 homeless children in the country, but experts and scholars cast doubt on the reliability of this number. 'It is just a meaningless figure. And more important, the number is growing bigger,' says Kate Wedgwood, the China Programme Director of Save the Children. Mr Tong believes that the problem of homeless children can only be addressed with efforts from a number of sectors, 'from judicial to administrative and from social welfare to poverty-relief'. Mr Tong nonetheless welcomed the new regulation but warned against reading too much into one piece of legislation. It was 'just one step forward, but there is still a long way to go', he said.