Illuminated by the faint warm yellow light emanating from the street lamps outside, one could just about make out the words on the huge banner hung near the entrance of the Sai Ying Pun community complex: “Cold shelter now open”. Despite the cold, a couple are still standing outside, sometimes pacing back and forth, smoking cigarettes.

As temperatures plunged to the lowest levels in almost 60 years, the government announced that the 17 temporary cold shelters will continue to be open all day on Tuesday.

The entrance of the Sai Ying Pun cold shelter. Photo: HKFP.

It was Monday, a little after 8pm. The staff said that the homeless taking shelter there had just finished eating; the food was ordered by the staff and free-of-charge, sponsored by the Home Affairs Department. The staff did not know how much longer the centre would stay be open.

Organisations are urging the authorities to keep the centres open 24-hours when cold weather strikes. The Society for Community Organization’s Chan Chun Yin said that the Home Affairs Department usually decide at around 4am that day whether to extend the opening hours of the cold shelters, and should a decision be made not to do so, staff have to begin asking the homeless to leave at around 7am. By 9am, they would all be gone.

Several years ago, the cold shelters were open around the clock, all through Christmas until Chinese New Year, a homeless man in a top hat recalled. His theory was that the authorities were more cautious now because triads used the shelters as gambling hideouts. When asked what supplies they would like from volunteers, two of the men said, looking almost embarrassed, that they would like soup; they were single men, and do not get soup very often.

Weathering the storm

The worst weather Hong Kong has seen in years brought out the best in people. A woman who gave her name simply as Nicole spoke to HKFP about her efforts to help the homeless in the cold spell. “On Sunday morning, I couldn’t sleep because it was so cold. So I went to McDonald’s at around 5:30am, and bought breakfast for [the homeless] there.” Nicole had worked with the homeless for about 25 years in London, calling it a “passion and profession”.

File photo: Suraj Katra.

Nicole then contacted a Jewish organisation called Chabad; they had been planning to do something for the homeless over Chinese New Year, but Nicole thought that there was no point in waiting and that something should be done now. Chabad speedily collected coats, jumpers and other warm items from the Jewish community in Hong Kong and on Monday evening, they took them down to the cold weather shelter in Sai Ying Pun, which housed over 20 men and four women. In addition, Chabad received financial donations of over HK$10,000, which were used to purchase more blankets, coats, fleeces, socks and warm items. They were distributed amongst the homeless in Sham Shui Po on Monday night.

From the window: SYP cold shelter. Photo: HKFP.

Nicole also visited a park near Central; ten homeless people live there, whom Nicole described as the regulars. “There was a girl with a big pot of congee to give out, and she’s been doing it for a couple of years. There’s also another Hong Kong lady who collects bread from local bakeries and gives it to homeless people in this park,” Nicole said. “Social workers visit the homeless here once a week.”

A picture of the govt washing the tunnels next to the homeless sparked outrage online.

Meanwhile, many were responding warmly to a call for action which Nicole made on Facebook expat and mom groups on Monday morning. By that evening, volunteers were making trips to cold shelters in Causeway Bay, Ap Lei Chau and Sai Ying Pun with supplies. One lady donated a hundred coats, which were then handed over to Christian Action and the Society for Community Organization.

Humanitarian project

Another group that was coordinating homeless assistance efforts was The Guest Room. The group said in a blog post on Tuesday that they were very grateful to volunteers who came out to help on Monday night; together, they “handed out wool socks, gloves, heat packs, bananas, oranges, pears, yogurt drinks, juice boxes, cookies, four types of biscuits, and tissues to close to 80 homeless people”.

“ImpactHK started with just a few of my close friends handing out to the homeless in Sham Shui Po. Now this organic movement sees 30-40 volunteers joining to lend some relief to the homeless at every event… A lot of people in Hong Kong care so much!” Jeff Rotmeyer, founder of The Guest Room, told HKFP. Rotmeyer started the blog with his wife and a few friends two years ago, and gradually it morphed into a project to promote humanitarianism. The team at The Guest Room had previously raised tens of thousands of dollars for those living in caged homes and even helped pay for a girl’s cleft lip operation.

A man sleeping in an underground tunnel that reeks of urine. Photo: Stephanie Teng.

“People were really keen. There’s a huge amount of local involvement [with efforts to help the homeless], but expats don’t always know how to get involved in [work coordinated by] grassroots organisations because they can’t speak Chinese. Many were asking how they could contribute long-term; they want to help,” Nicole said.

‘Walking alongside’ the homeless

One such local grassroots organisation is the Street Sleepers Action Committee (SSAC). Joe Wong, a SSAC staff member, told HKFP that in light of the recent cold weather, they have contacted two to three different groups of donors. For the past couple of days, a team of around 30 volunteers have been distributing sleeping bags, fleece jackets, and even hot soup. “We didn’t even have to go to look for volunteers – they were the ones who came up to us.” A lot of Hongkongers have also dropped by the centre to donate items.

One of the many scattered shelters under the bridges between Yau Ma Tei and Sham Shui Po. Photo: Stephanie Teng.

Wong said that many homeless people who live in a fixed location or have relatively more personal possessions could not afford to leave the place even when cold shelters are open. The SSAC and its volunteers have been visiting both those in shelters and the others who aren’t, mainly in the Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui area. Some are even tucked away in hidden locations. “We don’t like using the terms ‘helping’ them or ‘assisting’ them – we like to think of it as us walking alongside them.”

A lady giving out instructions to volunteers. Photo: Stephanie Teng.

The organisation came into being after a research project conducted by overseas social workers in the 1980s said that in order for the government to improve its policies for homeless people, there must be a pressure group. SSAC then became that pressure group.

“To put it simply, we’re picking up after the government… on the one hand, we’re happy that the homeless have cold shelters, warm places for them to stay. On the other hand, at the coldest time in the morning, they are asked to leave.” Wong said that the Home Affairs Department and the Hong Kong Observatory should have better communication and there should be better policies in the long run – not just ones that are seeking to eliminate them.

“We’re not trying to help them stay on the streets – we’re trying to help them so that they don’t have to stay on the streets,” Wong said.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.