The clock in the tower near the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier strikes 11 on a Thursday night. Tourists admiring the harbour view head back to their hotels, photographers pack up their gear and lovebirds who have been cuddling under the lamp posts drift slowly away. Most people are leaving, but for more than 20 others, this is the time they return to the place they call home. Until 6.30am every day, they lie alongside the diagonal pillars outside the Cultural Centre, which block out the city lights and let them catch some shut-eye. They all find somewhere to sleep, in varying degrees of comfort. And then there is the 'VIP room', the name the 'residents' have given to a shaded corner facing Victoria Harbour. Street sleeping has long been associated with the mentally or physically handicapped and the elderly, but hard times in the past decade have changed that. 'They are becoming younger and many of them are doing so because of financial reasons,' said social worker Ng Wai-tung, of the Society for Community Organisation (Soco). Soco is one of the non-government organisations providing services to street sleepers. It gives them travel subsidies and other necessities to help them get a job. According to a survey by the Social Welfare Department this year, there are 388 street sleepers in Hong Kong, although Mr Ng believes there are far more. He said more than 80 people were sleeping at the Cultural Centre when the economy was at its worst. Almost all of them were men. 'Men are more reluctant to seek help, compared to women', Mr Ng said. Peter, 54, has been sleeping beside one of those diagonal pillars for two years, but 10 years ago he was a karaoke lounge proprietor on the mainland. On this night, he has not eaten since 4.30pm because he has no money and depends on free meals from the restaurant he works at for HK$23 an hour. The pay may sound low to many, but any job is a godsend to Peter. 'No one wants to hire people in their 50s,' he said. 'And when you sleep on the street, it's impossible to sleep well - who would hire someone with no energy?' But not everyone in the group at the Cultural Centre is out of work or in a low-paid job. Bobby, a talkative 48-year-old who has slept at the 'VIP room' for five months, makes HK$10,000 a month as a gardener. But after shelling out most of his pay on debts, he does not have enough left for rent. It was a never-ending cycle, he said, because he had to keep borrowing more money to make ends meet. He admitted that whenever he had at least HK$4,000 in his pocket, he would go to Macau. 'But I never borrow money to gamble,' he said. Most of those sleeping outside the Cultural Centre have families. Peter has a family and a child on the mainland - who he still tries to support - while Bobby keeps in contact with his older sister. 'Of course, I haven't told her I live on the street,' he said. While many people are forced by circumstance to live on the streets, it is not the case with Ah Wei, 59, who shares the VIP room with Bobby. He has a wife and two teenage children in Yuen Long but decided to move out six months. 'I've always been like this,' he said. 'When I was young, I backpacked across China and just slept anywhere on the street when I felt like it.' Although family members visit him at the Cultural Centre and often urge him to come home, Ah Wei does not want to - apart from going to pick up some warm clothes for the cooler weather. 'We're neighbours here and we can do everything freely - have a few beers and chat before we sleep.' Bobby agrees: 'Except there is no TV to watch.' There is also something else missing - toilets - which leads some of the 'residents' to relieve themselves where they should not. This could have been a factor in the crackdown in October by security guards at the centre who had left them in peace for years. But things appear to be back to the way they were again, with the guards now doing nothing more than head counts every night.