Hong Kong’s homeless retreat to temporary shelters as cold weather hits
With temperatures dipping into the single digits, many of the city’s street sleepers struggle to stay warm
Chan Yau-sing keeps a watchful eye on two plastic bags on a table as he wolfs down a box of Portuguese chicken rice and a bowl of soup in the hallway of the temporary cold shelter in Sham Shui Po.
His whole life is stuffed in these two bags. One contains every snack and amenity he has collected in the last few days and the second contains a towel, some clothes and his coupon collection.
“This bag is very important as it doubles as my pillow at night,” says Chan, 65, who will spend a second night at the government shelter at Cheong San Lane, amid a cold weather warning. It is open from 5.30pm to 9am the next day.
He is dressed in his entire winter wardrobe, a soiled puffer jacket and two long-sleeved undershirts – all of which he received from donors.
“I prefer to bring everything along with me rather than leave it somewhere. It could get stolen. There are all sorts of characters around, like drug users,” he says.
“But it’s not too bad. There are mattresses and blankets that are warm enough that you can take your coat off. They give you coupons for food at 7.30pm, meals are served at 8pm and we get cup noodles in the morning.”
It is not his preferred choice of accommodation but Chan, who is homeless, prefers it over his usual digs – the slabs of stone along Po On Road, near the Post Office – when it is this cold outside. It has been like that for the past two winters and whenever there is heavy rain or a typhoon.
It costs him a relative fortune though. He has to take a HK$3.90 minibus ride to get to the shelter.
Temperatures in the city lingered between 8 and 9 degrees in the afternoon and went as low as 5 degrees in parts of the New Territories on Tuesday. The Home Affairs Department has opened 17 temporary cold shelters for the homeless.
The auditorium in the Cheong San Lane shelter is quiet at this hour. Some of the homeless are fast asleep on the mattresses laid out across the floor. A few groups of homeless people gather around to chat and trade items they’ve collected, while others smoke cigarettes in the stairwell.
On the ground floor, a row breaks out between a homeless man who tries to obtain a second meal and shelter staff.
Ah Chuen, 44, a homeless man who lives in a notorious row of shanty huts under a flyover along Tung Chau Street, says he would rather tough it out on the streets just as he has always done.
He shares a tiny shack, roughly two by two metres, made from plywood and vinyl tarps, with four others. “[Going to the shelter] to scratch for food is beneath my dignity,” says Chuen, who claims to have been an “underground prizefighter” in his earlier years.
“I used to train by swimming in the ocean in the winter. I’m not that afraid of the cold,” he says, shivering in his T-shirt and thin sports coat.
Several people and social workers walk by the dark, damp alley to hand out food, clothes and amenities as water drips down into the shacks from the flyover above. Chuen happily takes socks and a roll of biscuits, which he distributes to his friends in the shack.
Cold weather is expected to persist for the rest of the week as the intense winter monsoon continues to affect Guangdong. Minimum temperatures are forecast to go down to about 8 degrees Celsius in urban areas overnight.
Concerns have been raised for the welfare of several homeless people set to be evicted from a public pier in Kowloon this week, as temperatures dip into the single digits.
Eight street sleepers who have been living at Kwun Tong Public Pier for as long as three years were ordered by the Lands Department and the Transport Department on December 28 to leave by January 12. The Lands Department, citing the Land Ordinance, said the eight had committed “unlawful occupation of unleased land”.
According to a survey carried out by the Society for Community Organisation in 2015, at least 1,614 individuals were found living on the streets of Hong Kong, an increase of 200 since 2013.