The Kwun Tong public pier at the heart of the central business district in Kowloon is more than a place for people to catch a ferry, it has become a home to a community of people in Hong Kong with nowhere else to go. A haphazard mix of cardboard and wooden structures stand in defiance against a government sign that reads “unlawful occupation is not allowed”. Pastor Sam Cheng chun-wah, the founder of the Christian New Life Association, a drug treatment centre, and his group of volunteers, most of whom are recovering drug addicts, came across the unusual community living at the pier when they took part in a sailing course to learn new skills last December. After docking at the pier, they saw the makeshift village of around 30 people and decided to return with food for them in January, and then face masks during the coronavirus outbreak. “I was very surprised when I first came to see the situation here,” said Cheng, who returns every month or so with volunteers. Doing outreach work with homeless people in Kwun Tong, as well in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district, is an important part of the rehabilitation programme run by the organisation, in which addicts who do not use drugs any more give back to the community. “We don’t just help them to quit the drugs … I think it is better to give than to receive. Once they feel they have value in society and they can help others, it reinforces their treatment,” Cheng said. Coronavirus con artists swindle Hongkongers out of HK$48 million The 63-year-old pastor believes outreach work is an important part of the rehabilitation, something he knows about, as a recovering addict himself. His heroin addiction was “horrible, just horrible”, but he has been sober for 37 years, and founded his organisation 20 years ago. Among those handing out masks and the local confectionery, known as Ding Ding Tong, is Jack Hung Chun-kit. The 40-year-old was addicted to cocaine for 10 years, but has been in treatment at the rehabilitation centre in Yuen Long for the past six months. “I lost friends, family and my girlfriend. We were together for four years, but she left me because I was using drugs and dealing drugs,” said Hung, who has a conviction for drug trafficking. “Six months ago I didn’t know what to do. Everything was gone.” He said the organisation helped him change his life, and he learned how to sail a yacht, a skill he never thought of having. After Hung and three other recovering addicts went through several months’ training with non-profit-making Hong Kong Yacht & Start-Up Association, he sailed with other volunteers from Causeway Bay to the Kwun Tong pier to distribute rice and biscuits to the homeless just before Lunar New Year. “I never thought I would learn to sail, but it’s meant that I can now help others,” Hung said. The total number of reported drug users in Hong Kong decreased by 17 per cent to 5,614 in 2019 compared with 2018. Heroin is the most commonly abused drug, but the number of users recorded last year decreased to 2,872, a 21 per cent drop from the year before. Methamphetamine, also known as Ice, remained the most common type of psychotropic substance abused, with the number of reported abusers falling by 18 per cent to 1,291 from 2018. Among the 30 people who have made the pier their home is May Simmala, 49, who is from Thailand but has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. She has lived at the pier with her husband for the past year, and survives on the HK$7,000 a month in government welfare and disability allowance they receive after she suffered a stroke. Millions to get further cash boost from Hong Kong’s transport subsidy scheme “The government clears the area every three or four months,” she said. “We take the cardboard with us, and once the clearance is done, we move back and build our homes again.” A former drug addict, Simmala stopped using Ice five years ago, but is now among Hong Kong’s nearly 1,300 homeless people, according to official figures. Experts say the real statistic is likely to be much higher, with thousands of residents living in subdivided flats or “caged” homes, but preferring to be on the streets. Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser with the Society for Community Organisation, said he was not surprised to hear about the makeshift village in Kwun Tong, adding the rent for a tiny so-called cage home was $2,500 a month in Kwun Tong, compared to $1,900 a month in Sham Shui Po. “Of course when you pay $2,500 for monthly rent there is absolutely no window,” he said, adding that 10 people typically shared one toilet. “So their conclusion is that a cubicle in private housing is worse than being homeless. I am not saying the situation for homeless people is good, I’m saying living conditions in private housing where you pay rent, is viewed by them as being worse than being homeless.” I would love to leave, but there’s no point in thinking about something that will never happen. At least we are together. If I die, then someone will know Kwun Tong pier resident Lee, 74 Ng called on the government to build more hostels for the homeless, whose numbers have doubled in the past eight years. With Hong Kong’s unemployment rate at a nine year high, Ng says some of those recently out of work have ended up on the streets, unable to afford their rent. For some, the community under the pier is a visible reminder of the city’s homeless problem, with Mok Kin-shing, the vice-chairman of Kwun Tong District Council, saying he was aware there had been complaints made to the government hotline that the village was too big. Hong Kong co-living rents nosedive as coronavirus fears keep people apart “I think the Social Welfare Department needs to organise a living area for them such as public housing or shelter to improve their lives,” he said. “The pier is not an appropriate living area.” The department provides support for homeless people through three NGOs subsidised by the government, The Salvation Army, St James’ Settlement, and Christian Concern for the Homeless Association. “In addition, the Social Welfare Department provides subvention for six NGOs to provide temporary accommodation service with 222 subsidised hostel places for street sleepers; besides, there are some 410 self-financed hostel places operated by NGOs for street sleepers,” a spokesman for the department said. Among the residents of the Kwun Tong pier, it has become more than a place to stay. “I like that people live here,” said Hoi, who moved to the pier after losing his job last year. “We are a community. We do not talk a lot, but I see them as friends.” Lee, 74, and Lau, in his 60s, have been friends for more than 40 years. They live next to each other in tiny wooden structures that are just tall enough for them to lie down and sit up. In Lau’s small room he has put stuffed animals on a shelf to make it more welcoming. What social distancing? Hongkongers hit scenic spots despite coronavirus risks The two friends met at their village in mainland China when they were children, and moved to the pier four years ago, because they had no other option. “I would love to leave, but there’s no point in thinking about something that will never happen.” Lee said. “At least we are together. If I die, then someone will know.” For Simmala and her husband, their small shed remains in place for now, but they know it could get cleared away at any time. “I would like to live in a building, but I’ll be here for as long as I can live here,” Simmala said.