By Stanley Lam, Chloe Kwan and Kelly Wong
The area under the flyover next to Sham Shui Po is home to a shifting population of street sleepers, whose makeshift homes mark an ironic contrast to the private high-rise residential buildings just a block away.
When people think of the homeless, they often conjure up images of the marginalised, the mentally ill and those who are addicted to drugs. But there are many reasons people may live on the streets and some are members of the working poor who simply cannot afford to find a place to live.
“I’m still searching for a home but the rent is too high,” says Ah Ji, a street sleeper in his 40s, sitting calmly in Tung Chau Street Park on the coldest day so far of the winter.
When Varsity visited him, Ah Ji , who does not want to disclose his full name, had been sleeping in the park for a year. He used to rent a bed space in an old walk-up tenement building in Ki Lung Street, a few blocks away from where he now sleeps. Ah Ji says he paid HK$1,200 a month for a bed space in the flea-ridden apartment, where the lights only intermittently worked. When the landlord decided to turn the flat into sub-divided units, Ah Ji moved out and has been unable to find affordable accommodation elsewhere.
“I’m saving money, hoping the amount can sustain housing rents at least for a few months,” he says with hope and confidence. Ah Ji is a casual renovation worker who only works when he receives calls from his foreman. He is neither reluctant to work nor unable to work, despite what some might think, and he is not alone among street sleepers.
According to the survey report of the Homeless Outreach Population Estimation Hong Kong 2015 conducted by local universities and community organisations, 35 per cent of street sleepers interviewed had jobs, and nearly half said they sleep on the streets due to unaffordable rents.
Like Ah Ji, most of the working homeless are casual workers. Although they can meet their immediate need for food and daily necessities getting paid by the day, this is not a practical way of maintaining their livelihood. Employers always ask job applicants to fill in their addresses and contact numbers when they apply for long-term employment. Ah Ji says the homeless are trapped in the vicious cycle of“no address, no job”, which makes it hard for them to find long-term jobs with stable incomes.
Without either, Ah Ji has tried staying in two street sleepers’ hostels founded by a charity in Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei. But he found it hard to follow the hostel rules.
“We need to follow their rules strictly, for instance, the time of sleeping and waking up,” Ah Ji explains. The time constraints are disruptive to the working homeless because they might not be able to get back in time after finishing work.
While they acknowledge the rules are reasonable, they are inconvenient for some working homeless people. But there are others who choose the street over shelter in a hostel because they prefer the freedom of the streets.
Wing, 36, who does not want to disclose his full name, sleeps outside Tsim Sha Tsui’s Cultural Centre. On a bitterly cold day, he cheerfully shares his story with Varsity in the warmth of the Cultural Centre lobby. Meanwhile some volunteers are giving out hot drinks and food to the other homeless who are here to shelter from the cold.
Wing has lived in two temporary shelters before, but decided to settle on the street instead “There is no freedom inside Phoenix House,” Wing says. Phoenix House is a half-way house for those discharged from detention centres and training centres. According to Wing, there are many restrictions. For instance, residents must write a report if they return to the house later than 9 pm.
Another reason he stays on the street is for the company. Wing met his girlfriend a year ago on the street. He is estranged from his family and considers his girlfriend to be his family now. Wing says being with his girlfriend is more important than anything else.
“Many people ask me why not sleep at temporary cold shelters…because my girlfriend and I would have to be seperated,” Wing says, adding that sleeping on the street is the best option for them, at least, for now.
Like Ah Ji, Wing is also a casual worker. He has worked as an extra and bit-part actor in TVB dramas and several movies, and as a street performer. When Varsity first visited him, Wing was planning to become a fortune teller in Mong Kok. But he explained his difficulties. “I don’t have tables or seats. There’s no way I can ask someone to kneel down and play tarot cards.”
He has tried to apply for funds from non-governmental organisations to start his business, such as the Community Chest Rainbow Fund. However, the fund aims to provide grants for families or individuals with imminent survival needs, so Wing was unsuccessful.
Other than the Rainbow Fund, Wing has also applied to the Community Care Fund and is waiting to hear back. However, he is reluctant to apply for the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme (CSSA) which can provide a single person HK$2,255 a month.
“Applying for CSSA is troublesome, I’d need to gather all kinds of information…fill the application form, explain why I was rejected from the jobs I’ve applied for before,” Wing says.
Research carried out by the City University of Hong Kong reveals that over one third of the homeless surveyed think the application procedures for benefits are complicated or hard to understand. As a result they either do not apply for or fail in their applications.
For Wing, there was good news after he met a social worker intern who bought him a table and chairs set, allowing him to set up business as a tarot-card reader. He got off to a good start, earning around HK$2,000 on the first two days of the Chinese New Year holiday.
Volunteers and social service sector workers like the social worker intern who helped Wing, can help to bridge the chasm between street sleepers and society. Peter Chiu Yat-fai, life education administrator for the Christian charity, Mission to New Arrivals Ltd, also volunteers with the homeless. He says sometimes street sleepers just want friends to talk to who do not mind that they sleep on the streets.
“To these street sleepers who have a job, it’s not about how we can help them, but about recognition and appreciation,” says Chiu. “When we visit the homeless, they don’t want us to see them as poor or give many things to them, nor pity them. We just need to treat them as people who chose to settle on streets.”
Chiu has built close relationships with a couple of street sleepers and recalls the fun times he had with one of his homeless friends, enjoying hotpot during winter in Tai Kwok Tsui. “Sometimes we [volunteers] also ask ourselves if there is any problem with being homeless…It is typical to stereotype those people [homeless], that they sleep on the street for bad reasons,” Chiu adds.
However, there is still a strong social stigma attached to being homeless. Chiu’s job involves educating children and teenagers about social affairs. He often leads tours to sub-divided units and cage houses. He recalls the response of a Primary Five student who was asked to imagine if one of his classmates lived in a sub-divided unit. “He said he would break off their friendship,” says Chiu, shivering at the memory.
Wong Hung, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has conducted extensive studies on the homeless, looks at the problem in a macroscopic way. He blames the surging cost of living and rent. “It is really hard for them [the homeless] to survive on the minimum wage,” says Wong.
“I think the solution is the institutional and policy one; it is not by individual effort that you can counter this,” says Wong. He believes making affordable and suitable housing available is the way out to resolve this problem.
Wong points to a flaw in city planning where many public rental housing units are located in the New Territories, which are far from the city centre where most of the jobs are. As a result, public housing residents in those areas often remain unemployed and live on CSSA.
Wong is now looking into the possibilities of turning old urban houses reclaimed by the Urban Renewal Authority into interim housing to rehouse the young homeless.
“If the government thinks about letting NGOs run this, if it’s cheaper than that, HK$80 or HK$70 per night just for Hong Kong residents, or if you can charge the visitors a higher rate…then it becomes a social business,” Wong says. He is also considering the feasibility of using abandoned primary or secondary schools.
The plight of the working homeless cannot be solved through individual action. But in the meantime, Wong says there is still much the general public can do to reach out to them, by considering, “the social side I would say, the social network, the social need. The emotional need, rather than just physical needs or the basic needs of the homeless people.”