Hong Kong’s leader has demanded government departments fulfil their responsibilities to support the city’s homeless, amid growing calls for authorities to apologise for what has been called “unreasonable treatment” of street sleepers. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor gave assurances about the welfare of homeless people on Wednesday, after nine men were each awarded HK$100 (US$12.78) in compensation by a court. The Small Claims Tribunal ruled that authorities had not handled the men’s personal belongings properly in a 2019 clearance operation at a park. The court case sparked calls for authorities to apologise to the group of street sleepers, with critics accusing the government of failing to put in place sufficient support for the underprivileged and a policy friendly to the city’s homeless. Hong Kong court finds lack of care in park clearance operation against homeless Pressed in her regular epidemic press conference if an apology was imminent, Lam dodged the question, noting that support for the homeless was a focus during her tenure as director of social services from 2000 to 2003. She said: “During those years, I proposed some measures to support the homeless, and to offer aid and subsidies to several organisations ... for them to roll out hostels and employment schemes for the homeless. “That’s why I will demand relevant departments continue to act out of my concern for the homeless, and to do a good job in providing support for the homeless.” In the case concerning the nine street sleepers, the court heard 22 police officers were called in on December 21, 2019 to help janitors from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department clear unclaimed items at a Sham Shui Po park. The items collected from the park – home to about 80 to 100 street sleepers – filled 12 garbage containers, each with a volume of 600 litres. The nine claimants said they had only been given three minutes to pack and leave, failing which their belongings would be confiscated and moved to a refuse depot. On Tuesday, the court found the department had failed to discharge its duty of care as janitors made no independent identifications for the seized items. The belongings were left in a cluttered state in the depot, forcing the claimants, some of whom were physically impaired, to rummage through garbage containers. The Hong Kong Homelessness Census 2021 put the number of people in the city without a fixed residence at 1,532 – 64 per cent of whom were sleeping in the streets, with nearly a quarter staying in non-profit hostels, and 14 per cent living in temporary accommodation such as guest houses. Ng Wai-tung, community organiser for the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), said the director of leisure and cultural services had yet to come out and be held accountable for his department’s wrongdoings. The SoCO is a concern group supporting the street sleepers in the court proceedings. “The government should apologise over its mistreatment of the street sleepers. The relevant departments should reflect on their improper attitudes to the homeless,” he said. Hong Kong officer denies homeless had no time to pack up in park clearance Ng called for the government to introduce a policy friendly to the homeless and set up a department to specifically work with street sleepers. He said he had observed a surge in the number of homeless people amid the city’s raging fifth wave of infections, given that the closure of a wide range of businesses had driven more to unemployment and out of their homes. “The measures could include hostels and social housing for the homeless and cleaning jobs for them, in exchange for keeping the streets clean,” he added. Ng suggested authorities could draw on the experience of Taiwan, where each registered homeless person could have a government-labelled bag to store their personal belongings. They also could get free dental services and allowances for cleaning the streets. “This is a way for maintaining a cordial relationship with the homeless,” he said. Social worker and lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen said both the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and police should apologise to the group of street sleepers, adding that they should have shown respect for the homeless instead of being seen as bullying the poor and underprivileged. He mooted a similar idea of a special government task force that could offer targeted support for street sleepers. “Usually homeless people have complicated problems such as family, emotional, financial or personal problems. The task force should offer help on a case-by-case basis and transfer them to counselling services if necessary,” Tik said. A spokesman for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department said under general circumstances, should personal belongings in a park cause obstruction to passageways and disturbances to other users, staff would ask the items’ owners to put away their properties. “The department will discuss the judgment and future arrangements with the department of justice to deal with similar situations in the future,” he said. A spokesman for the Social Welfare Department said it had been offering assistance to the homeless through various means, including employment support and temporary lodging. As of end February, its subvented non-government organisations (NGOs) had contacted about 1,587 street sleepers but there was only temporary lodging available for 646. “The Social Welfare Department … will keep close communication and cooperation with relevant government departments and stakeholders in order to provide suitable welfare support services for the homeless in accordance with their individual needs,” he said.