Years ago, while travelling around the Australian Outback with my father, a beggar stopped and asked us for money, so that he might eat. My dad later spied that same man in a pub, at the bar, and tapped him on the shoulder.
“You didn’t need food, you needed a drink,” my dad complained. “I want my money back.”
We may have been smack in the middle of the country, in what has been called Australia’s “red centre”, but at that point, the reddest thing in the Outback was probably my embarrassed face.
Remembering that day, I wonder if Hong Kong’s “begpackers” – international travellers who take to the streets and declare themselves desperately in need of money for air tickets or further adventures – are as dishonest.
Some friends, having given money to such travellers for air tickets, have then been furious to see them knocking back drinks in bars soon afterwards. Is it because the panhandlers come from a generation that requires instant gratification? Can’t they work and save for trips like everyone else? Why can’t they call family and friends if they urgently need funds?
Spend time with the homeless of Hong Kong, however, and you will discover that travellers from around the world are among the growing number of people living on our streets.
In May, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong informed the legislature that 1,127 street sleepers had registered with the Social Welfare Department in the year 2017-18. That figure did not include travellers living rough, but was still an increase of 51 per cent from 2013-14.
Just last week I heard of a German woman who, suffering from suspected mental illness, believes she is a singer in a famous band, and had been found sleeping in a park. Thankfully, individuals like these can turn to ImpactHK, a charity that helps the city’s homeless. While she has not officially been reported as missing, efforts to locate her family have been unsuccessful.
The truth is that while some begpackers are, no doubt, taking advantage of the kindness of strangers, others are in genuine need.
So, the next time you see a begpacker and want to name and shame them on Facebook, instead of whipping out the iPhone to snap an incriminating picture, perhaps it would be better to take their side. That traveller might be far from the lazy trustafarian you suspect them to be, and should you ever fall on hard times yourself, the Bank of Karma might just pay you back.