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Poverty

Number of registered Hong Kong homeless soars as sky-high rents force people to sleep rough

Real number of street sleepers likely to be far higher than official figures suggest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 2:28pm

The number of registered homeless people in Hong Kong has jumped almost 22 per cent in the past year as sky-high rents force the city’s poorest inhabitants to sleep rough.

Official figures tabled to the Legislative Council on Wednesday showed there were 1,127 registered street sleepers in the year 2017-18, up 21.9 per cent from 924 in 2016-17. The latest figure was an increase of 51 per cent from 2013-14.

But one community worker said even those numbers might not give the whole picture.

“We have always felt that the government’s figures are underestimated,” said Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a community organiser with the Society for Community Organisation (SoCo), which helps street sleepers. “Studies conducted by academics and non-governmental organisations have put the figure at about 2,000.

“The problem with the government’s handling of the street sleepers is that you don’t know which department is responsible for this issue. The Social Welfare Department is involved and so is the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.”

He called for better coordination between government departments.

Among the 1,127 registered street sleepers, 244 had been homeless for more than 10 years; 392 had been so for five to 10 years; and 325 had been without a home for one to five years.

On why they are sleeping rough, 34.9 per cent said they are unable to pay rent because they were unemployed. Meanwhile, 15.7 per cent said they could not find affordable accommodation. 

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More than half of them sleep in parks, playgrounds or car parks. The second most popular location was underneath a flyover. Some 634 of them were between the age of 50 and 69.

High property prices and rents have been perennial complaints among Hongkongers. 

The Rating and Valuation Department’s rental index for March reached 189.8, up from 152.1 five years ago. 

A government study released in January showed the median monthly rent for a subdivided flat in Hong Kong stood at HK$4,500 in 2016, up from HK$3,800 in 2014.

In March, SoCO released a study that showed the number of homeless people in Hong Kong who spent their nights in 24-hour branches of McDonald’s had jumped 50 per cent in three years, reaching 384 this year. 

The group has called on the government to provide more subsidised dormitories for women and, in the long run, to turn vacant public premises into social housing to accommodate the homeless and shorten the queue for public housing.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong said in a written reply to Legco on Wednesday that the Social Welfare Department provided 222 assisted places to homeless people. NGOs provide another 418 places, he added.

“Since the service objective of [the shelters] is to provide transitional placements to assist street sleepers’ transition to long-term accommodation arrangements, the maximum period of stay is normally six months,” he said. 

“However, the social workers responsible may consider extending the service users’ period of stay in accordance with the needs of individual cases.”