Priced out and living above a rubbish dump: where do Hong Kong’s rough sleepers go?
While homeless city residents have various reasons for sleeping out in public or in 24-hour restaurants, about half say they can’t afford Hong Kong’s exorbitant rents
Opposite a sleek high-rise residential block on Yau Ma Tei’s Shanghai Street is a squat building where household waste is collected before being taken to the landfill.
Black plastic bags, styrofoam boxes and plastic crates lie on the grimy floor of the rubbish collection centre. The air is ripe with the tang of food scraps rotting in the summer heat.
Just above it on the second floor, under the glow of fluorescent lights, frames of bunk beds are pressed against a row of glass windows.
This is the Yau Ma Tei street sleepers’ shelter, which provides free lodging for some of Hong Kong’s homeless.
It is where 35-year-old Sang has been living on and off for the past five years, after getting kicked out of his flat for not being able to pay the rent.
“Conditions are not great, but at least I don’t have to pay for it,” Sang said, when the Post met him outside the shelter, near a hodgepodge of businesses ranging from fruit wholesalers to nightclubs.
Sang was not forthcoming with many details — such as how much he earned and what he did for a living. He would only say he worked in the entertainment industry and it was too “sensitive” to reveal more than his last name.
According to figures from the Social Welfare Department (SWD) from May this year, 1,127 people — of whom nine in 10 were men — were registered as street sleepers in the 2017/18 financial year. This doubled from 555 five years earlier.
Just over six in 10 were aged 50 and above and the same proportion had been sleeping on the streets for between one and 10 years.
About half – 571 people – said they could not afford Hong Kong’s exorbitant housing prices. Property agencies said rents rose by 20 per cent from March 2016 to earlier this year, while the median home price reached a peak of 19 times more than the median annual income of about HK$300,000 last year.
Nine NGOs provide two options for those without homes — three shelters which are free of charge, or 13 hostels with fees of less than HK$2,000 a month.
But SWD data from last year showed 70 per cent of registered homeless people slept in public places, including parks, playgrounds, car parks, and the spaces underneath bridges.
A study this June by non-profit youth group Junior Chamber International’s (JCI) Tai Ping Shan chapter came across 334 people who said they had slept in various 24-hour McDonald’s outlets nightly for the past three months, 30 per cent more than in a similar survey done three years ago.
When JCI spoke to 53 of the so-called McSleepers, it found about three in 10 were homeless.
The rest said they had homes to go to, but gave a host of reasons why they were not there. They included wanting to avoid conflict with families, building social relationships with others, the need to be closer to work, and seeking temporary shelter while waiting for a cheap public rental flat.
Others said they were there for the free air conditioning, given the recent sweltering weather.
On days that the weather agency classifies as “very hot”, the Home Affairs Department opens air-conditioned community centres through the night for those who need respite from the heat. There are no beds, so people must sleep on the floor.
Besides McDonald’s, what are the options?
The 16 shelters and hostels currently provide about 640 beds. Several hostels receive subsidies from the government but the three shelters are wholly funded by Street Sleepers’ Shelter Society Trustees Incorporated, a charity.
Street sleepers need a referral letter from a social worker to qualify for a bed in a shelter or hostel, and it can take anywhere between two days and six months to get a bed.
Generally, applicants cannot stay in these places for more than six months at a time, but extensions can be granted on a case-by-case basis.
The Post visited the locations of four hostels and the three free shelters, but the hostels did not respond to requests for information or to enter their premises, while the charity that runs the shelters refused to allow a visit.
The hostels had better surroundings — a peek into one in a 55-year-old building in Sham Shui Po showed it looked clean, with bunk beds and a rack at the entrance to keep shoes.
The other two shelters were above a public toilet and public bathroom. Sang estimated there were about 30 bunk beds at the male-only Yau Ma Tei shelter and it could accommodate more than 70 residents.
There were no mice or pests, he said, though there was sometimes a smell from the rubbish. Hygiene standards had improved though, he said, so he was no longer bitten by fleas.
“Hot water is available but there is no air conditioner. So I always wake up soaked in sweat these days,” he added. He said residents sometimes got into fights, and he once lost his mobile phone but did not know who took it.
Chan Chun-yin, a social worker specialising in serving the homeless at the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) said street sleepers might not choose the hostels and shelters as they come with strings attached.
The Yau Ma Tei shelter, for example, has a curfew and residents are locked out if they do not return by 11pm. That is why some homeless people prefer public places and McDonald’s outlets, Chan said.
“Conditions other than availability, such as the limited length of stay, often make hostels and shelters a less convenient and preferred option, especially for those becoming homeless for the first time,” Chan said.
Wilson Lee, who said he had spent about three years sleeping in different 24-hour McDonald’s stores, having severed ties with his family, echoed Chan’s view.
“I don’t like the curfews [the shelters and hostels] have. I feel freer this way,” the 53-year-old said, as he leaned back in his seat at a To Kwa Wan outlet, his feet bare and perched on a stack of four small suitcases.
A problem of housing affordability and rising living costs
Hong Kong has a variety of international and home-grown fast food chains, but few stay open for 24 hours. Half of the 240 McDonald’s outlets in the city do.
Asked what it made of the “McSleepers” phenomenon, McDonald’s Hong Kong said it welcomed people of “all walks of life” to visit its restaurants and would not disturb them, but provide attentive service.
Indeed, the tolerance displayed by the fast food giant has helped Chinese medicine therapist and pharmacist Ngan Wai-lun reduce the time he spends travelling between his flat in Yuen Long and his workplaces in Hung Hom and Wong Tai Sin.
Recently, he has been spending some nights at a McDonald’s outlet in To Kwa Wan, as his colleagues are on leave and he has to see more patients, some early in the morning. On a Wednesday night as he was interviewed at the outlet, a thin stream of grey smoke rose from a small urn of burning incense on the table, as he wore earphones to listen to music on his mobile phone.
“This helps me to relax,” he said.
At the same outlet, a 76-year-old public housing resident who only wanted to be known by his last name Kwok, said he began spending two to three nights a week there this summer.
He lives alone and survives on a basic social security payment of about HK$3,000 a month. Using the air conditioner nightly at home would cost him between HK$600 and HK$700 for two months’ electricity. This was not affordable, he explained, and he was too old to supplement his income by taking on odd jobs.
Chan of SoCO said there were a variety of reasons why people were homeless or sleeping in public spaces and McDonald’s outlets.
But housing affordability and rising living costs were the underlying “social problems the government must address”, he said.
An SWD spokesman said the authority was “mindful of the welfare needs of street sleepers” and had been providing support to “help them reintegrate into the community”.
In a reply to a lawmaker in May this year, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong described people sleeping on the streets as a “complex social problem”.
“Various government departments and service units in districts have been collaborating closely to support street sleepers and improve their motivation for receiving support, with the hope to encourage them to quit street sleeping as soon as possible,” he said.
Another social worker, who did not want to be named, said: “If the government continues to avoid tackling the fundamental causes — the rocketing housing prices and the shortage of community infrastructure in the face of population expansion – social service providers like us won’t be able to cover the constantly growing homeless group, no matter how hard we work and how willing we are to serve.”
While Law, in his reply in May, said the government had no plans to increase the number of beds in hostels, as the occupancy rate was about 80 per cent, Chan said there was a need for more temporary accommodation for the homeless and for occupants to be able to stay longer, up from six months to one to three years.
SoCO planned to use its own funds to open four hostels in western Kowloon, each housing six people, targeting shelter residents who show they can get along with others and have found stable work.
“There, they can have better conditions and more private space,” Chan said.
But for Sang, who had applied for several extensions to remain at the Yau Ma Tei shelter, the thought of leaving is daunting.
He estimated he needed to have “savings of at least HK$100,000” to put his days of homelessness behind him forever.
“Otherwise I will be in [the shelter again] three months later,” he said. “Prices for everything are rising every year out there.”