Last Sunday night, a homeless person living under the West Kowloon flyover was cooking a hot meal on a portable gas stove, when the items around him suddenly caught fire.
Soon, eight people – already deprived of a home – also lost their beds, documents, and other belongings to the flames.
Retrieving whatever they could salvage, three of them moved into the nearby Tung Chau Street Park, a rare green space in the crowded, mostly-impoverished district of Sham Shui Po. An NGO, Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), provided them with new blankets.
As they looked for their belongings in the fire debris on Tuesday morning, a passer-by urged an HKFP reporter to provide media coverage and help evict them from the area. “They make the entire place so smelly,” he said. “They piss everywhere, and the government doesn’t care.”
When asked where else the men would live, the passer-by insisted that homelessness was a choice: “Even if they had an apartment to live in, they wouldn’t live in it.”
However, social workers suggest that the choice simply does not exist. According to a February 2017 SoCO study, the average homeless person – after previously finding housing or shelter – has been forced back out onto the streets more than four times, and has slept rough for a total of seven years.
SoCO has attributed the bleak situation to a combination of Hong Kong’s high rents, long queues for public housing, and time limits on permitted stays in homeless shelters.
The NGO is adamant that street sleepers do not wish to be homeless, and has called on the government to take their realities seriously.
Tang Tak-san, who walks on crutches, has called the underpass on Tung Chau Street his home for four years. Two years ago he applied for public housing, but he does not know when his luck will arrive.
“There’s no way of knowing when I’ll get it. They’ll say ‘it’s your turn,’ and so it is,” he told HKFP.
As a single man, Tang’s application is determined by the Quota and Points System, a scheme set up by the Housing Authority in 2005, which prioritises the applications of families and elderly people over younger, one-person applicants like himself.
Under the system, the Housing Authority allocates a maximum of 2,200 public housing units for single, non-elderly people like Tang every year – only 10 per cent of the total units on offer. Yet a staggering total of 133,500 of these single, non-elderly people were waiting to be housed as of December last year.
February’s SoCO study indicates that the average homeless applicant has waited for more than four years.
In November, SoCO helped two public housing applicants – one of them homeless – to file a judicial review against the Quota and Points System. They claimed that the system was discriminatory, and violated Basic Law Article 36, which stipulates the right to social welfare. However, the High Court has not yet handed down a judgement.
A Housing Authority spokeswoman told HKFP that the number of flats allocated to single, non-elderly people had already been increased in February 2015 – from 20,000 to 22,000 units – to better cater for their needs.
“The Housing Authority has no further plans to revise the Quota and Points System at the moment,” she said.
The other option – private housing – is prohibitively expensive. As of 2017, the Social Welfare Department provides up to HK$1,810 per month in rental subsidies for a single person living in private accommodation.
Though this figure has increased by around 30 per cent since 2013, SoCO community organiser Ng Wai-tung says that high rents and poor housing conditions have forced many onto the streets. “What you can maybe rent from this [subsidy] is a windowless, bathroom-less subdivided space for a bed,” Ng said.
More than 70 per cent of homeless respondents in the February SoCO study said their previous rented accommodation had pest problems, while more than half complained about ventilation or heating.
In Hong Kong, homeless shelters are operated by various NGOs and charities. Some, like Christian Concern for the Homeless in Sham Shui Po, receive funding from the Social Welfare Department. Others, like the Street Sleepers’ Shelter Society in the same district, are responsible for their own finances.
The Home Affairs Department and the Housing Authority both operate temporary accommodation centres, but they are only opened under circumstances of adverse weather, disasters, or government demolition works.
Tang feels that life inside the homeless shelters is acceptable, even though some people in Sham Shui Po have alleged that they are infested with woodlice or rats, and are badly managed.
Regardless of their conditions, shelters provide only temporary relief. A Social Welfare Department spokeswoman told HKFP that rough sleepers are normally only permitted to stay in government-subsidised homeless shelters for six months at a time, while SoCO says that some self-funded shelters stipulate even shorter time limits of only three months.
“Social workers can consider prolonging the residence period in accordance with individual needs and circumstances,” she said. “In accordance with the department’s subsidy and service agreements with relevant shelters, they can prolong the residence periods of 40 to 50 per cent of the total number of sleepers.”
SoCO’s Ng says that the government ceases to fund most homeless people at a shelter after six months. “No matter what institution it is… would they pay for [the sleepers] out of their own pocket?” asked Ng. “Therefore they have to leave.”
The result is that every few months, sleepers rotate in and out of different homeless shelters around Hong Kong.
In February, the Social Welfare Department told the Legislative Council that homeless shelters in the city provided spaces for a total of 630 people.
However, as of December 2016, the department said that there were 908 documented homeless people in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Social Workers Association has claimed that these figures were probably underestimations, because they did not include those sleeping in homeless shelters or 24-hour fast-food chains, and those who did not sleep at the same spot for seven consecutive days.
“After I come back out, I have to wait a long time again [before entering a homeless shelter],” said Tang.
Ng added that different shelters share records of people who have lived in them. “So transferring from one shelter to another is quite impossible… if you take one space, there are others waiting outside.”
The Street Sleepers’ Shelter Society declined HKFP’s request for comment, while calls to Christian Concern for the Homeless in Sham Shui Po went unanswered.
“So in the end, all three of the roads are blocked,” said Ng. “[Homeless people] can’t rent a flat, go into a shelter, or apply for public housing.”
“They are sleeping rough, getting accommodation, then sleeping rough again,” he added. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
People have been forced into the cycle of homelessness despite having jobs. The February SoCO study found that more than 60 per cent of homeless people are in fact employed, most commonly as hygiene workers, earning an average monthly salary of HK$5,500.
Back on Tung Chau Street, Tang said that he lived precariously, often finding his belongings stolen. “They always disappear: shirts, trousers, and even my identity documents,” he said. “During the daytime, I have to use wooden boards or other things to cover them.”
He said that police and other officials have harassed his community much less in recent months, compared with the days when he first slept rough. Back in 2012, 19 homeless people filed a lawsuit against the government, alleging that it unlawfully confiscated their property from the street. The government then paid them HK$2,000 each in compensation.
Local media have sometimes reported discoveries of syringes and bloodied towels near homeless areas, but lately Tang has not witnessed any hygiene or drug problems. “We sweep the streets, clear up everything so it doesn’t block the pathways,” he said. “everybody takes responsibility to pack up their own things.”
“The ones who take drugs have all been arrested… there’s none of them left.”
As he does not live in the jade market area, Tang’s belongings were fortunately not affected by last Sunday’s Tung Chau Street blaze. He said that he no longer uses gas stoves after a close encounter with fire several months ago: “There were no northerly winds at that time… otherwise everything would have gone.”
The day after the fire, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department put up some 20 notices around Tung Chau Street park, where homeless people had relocated.
“Various items have been accumulating in the park,” they read. “They affect hygiene and seriously obstruct the use of public facilities.”
“All items should be removed before March 11 [Saturday]. Otherwise, the items will be cleared up.”
On Tuesday morning, SoCO and a dozen rough sleepers demonstrated at the Cheung Sha Wan Government Offices, criticising the department for its “cold-blooded” evictions.
Department director Michelle Li Mei-sheung responded that staff have been empathetic in their treatment of homeless people in the past, and would provide a solution in the following days.
“We hope there will be mutual respect,” she said. “We hope that there will be a safe, comfortable and hygienic environment.”
The demonstration coincided with a motion proposed by pro-democracy councillor Tam Kwok-kiu at the Sham Shui Po District Council, calling for the government to stop evicting street sleepers from public spaces, as well as to establish more homeless shelters and communication mechanisms.
However, the motion offers neither a timeline for action, nor does it explicitly task any authority with the responsibility of providing the services. It was passed unanimously, across political divisions, that afternoon.
For now, with their documents and belongings destroyed in the fire, some of the Tung Chau Street homeless may be forced to beg.