Street sleepers were intimidated by men “armed with knives” two months before a fire burned down a homeless camp in Yau Ma Tei last Friday, NGO Society for Community Organization (SoCO) has told HKFP.

The fire on Friday took place at a homeless camp underneath the West Kowloon Corridor in Yau Ma Tei, destroying nearly all of the belongings of seven street campers, Apple Daily reported.

fire homeless sham shui po
A fire burned down a homeless camp in Yau Ma Tei on Friday.

The affected site was home to about 10 people of Nepali origin, all of whom were away and uninjured during the fire. The authorities are investigating the cause of Friday’s fire.

But activist James Lung Wai-man, who has been helping the homeless community in the area, said that the fire was likely an act of arson, and urged witnesses to provide information on the incident. “Why would anyone want to eradicate them?”

Lung said the fire was unlikely accidental because the campers always take fire precautions from fear of losing their only belongings. “There is no electricity or kindling underneath the flyover. Surely the fire must have been deliberate,” Lung said.

He added that the victims fled in fear upon seeing the fire and have not returned since.

fire homeless sham shui po
Fire at a homeless camp in Yau Ma Tei. Photo: Ng Wai-tung/Apple Daily.

‘Strange coincidences’

Ng Wai-tung of SoCO told HKFP that the homeless community was informed in late July that the authorities would be clearing the affected site and a nearby camp next to the Yau Ma Tei police station a month later – the seventh clearance over the last six years.

Upon petitioning by SoCO and other NGOs, the government agreed to postpone the plan until mid-November.

In early August, residents of the homeless camp near the Yau Ma Tei police station told the social worker that they were intimidated by a group of men “armed with knives” at night, who searched their belongings and asked them for money and food several times.

“I saw those men once myself too when I was visiting the camp,” said Ng. “They looked threatening and it was a bit scary, but they did not come over seeing that there were social workers around.”

homeless yau ma tei
Homeless people in Yau Ma Tei.

But Ng said the campers did not report to the police owing to their criminal records and homeless status, as well as the perception that police would not treat them fairly and would instead increase stop and search actions against them.

Ng said although no correlation can be drawn between the government’s plan, the armed men and Friday’s fire, the coincidences were strange as no camp had been burned down before, and as a group of threatening-looking men could freely wander near a police station at night.

‘Better than subdivided flats’

Ng said that the victims could afford subdivided homes, but preferred to sleep on the street because the environment is better. “Subdivided homes are small, noisy and poorly ventilated as there are often no windows, so they can’t sleep at night,” Ng said.

Ng criticised the government for a lack of longterm policy targeting the root of the problem. He said that the “urban hostels for street sleepers” provided by the government are only available for a maximum of six months at one time to each person, compared to five to seven years in New York.

A subdivied flat.
A subdivided flat. Photo: SoCO/Apple Daily.

As a result, Ng said, many people have repeatedly returned to the street after losing temporary shelter as they cannot afford the high rent.

Both Ng and Lung said that the government focuses on hiding homeless people from public view, rather than on developing economic and housing policies to help the poor.

“Using administrative methods [to drive away homeless people] is not an effective solution,” said Ng. “They must address the root of the problem.”

Correction: This article previously stated that the fire took place in Sham Shui Po. In fact, it took place at a homeless camp in Yau Ma Tei. 

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.