Hong Kong’s street sleepers need help, not unnecessary distress

Cleaners throwing away as trash the belongings of the city’s homeless sits at odds with claims of a caring government

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 10:32pm

In winter, the Social Welfare Department provides blankets and warm clothing to people living without a roof. Yet the handouts, along with their personal belongings, could be thrown away as trash by cleaners from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department any time. The contrasting practices sit oddly with claims of a caring government.

For the second time in three years, the government is being sued by street sleepers for compensation. They claimed that their makeshift shelters in an underpass in West Kowloon were suddenly fenced off, and their belongings were swiftly dumped into garbage trucks in a clearance operation. Some allegedly lost their identity cards or passports and complained of difficulties in finding jobs. Whether compensation is warranted is now a matter for the Small Claims Tribunal to decide. But the previous lawsuit in 2012, which was resolved by the government giving each of the 17 claimants HK$2,000 in an out-of-court settlement, showed that lessons have not been learned.

READ MORE: Hong Kong street sleepers claim compensation after belongings are allegedly dumped in government raid

Currently, there is no law against street sleeping per se. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department only steps in when public spaces are obstructed or environmental hygiene affected. Depending on the circumstances, clearance may be justified sometimes. But that does not mean personal belongings can be senselessly bulldozed away. The homeless are already marginalised in society and live without dignity. The government should avoid inflicting further distress on them.

The lawsuit is just another reminder of the plight of street sleepers in an affluent city like ours. Earlier, a study found that skyrocketing rents and appalling living conditions in shoebox-sized subdivided flats had pushed the homeless population to an all-time high. The figure nearly tripled from 600 in 2004 to more than 1,600 by October last year. This is nearly double that of the government’s own record.

If given the choice, few people would choose to live without a roof. Like poverty, homelessness is a matter of circumstances rather than choice. They need help rather than more distress.