Hong Kong’s homeless are growing in number as a fresh wave of coronavirus infections claims jobs, but charities are finding it increasingly hard to care for them due to tighter rules aimed at combating the disease.

Two NGOs, ImpactHK and Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), noticed a sharp increase in the number of street sleepers on their nightly assistance rounds in Tsim Sha Tsui last month, with numbers rising from 35 to 55.

The rise has created a greater demand for health care and other essential services. But with the government’s tighter restrictions on restaurants and public gatherings, charities are finding it increasingly difficult to meet needs.

MSF volunteer with a homeless individual. Photo: Médicins Sans Frontières.

“MSF is extremely concerned about how Covid-19 could affect people living in already precarious situations,” a spokesperson said.

Without access to proper hygiene and other preventative measures, the homeless face a greater risk of infection, she said.

“Some of them have been unemployed for months due to the outbreak and it’s their first time to sleep in the streets. The closure of publicly accessible bathrooms, suspension of services by some meal providers and of sleeping areas in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic affected them particularly.”

Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

MSF said the government’s ban on dine-in services after 6pm, preventing the homeless from staying overnight in 24-hour fast food restaurants, was a further complication.

A real need

The tightening of social distancing restrictions in response to each wave of Covid-19 infections has had a ripple effect for the city’s most vulnerable.

During the second wave in March, The Guestroom, a homeless shelter run by ImpactHK, managed to raise funds to shelter an additional 50 homeless people to help them get back on their feet.

However, their efforts have been undermined by a batch of returnees who have once again lost their jobs. “We have seen some cases return for help again,” Annabella Cheng, ImpactHK’s Head of Education and Mentorship told HKFP.

“Some have had their salary stopped, some couldn’t pay their rent.”

Several of those who approach the shelter for help are restaurant workers who have lost their jobs due to the tighter restrictions.

Photo: Médicins Sans Frontières.

Yeung, a former cleaner who tried to change jobs in April but found himself unemployed for three months, is one of the 17 people for whom MSF has found shelter in a hostel.

“At first, I lived in a hostel which cost HK$250 per day, but I soon realised that it was too expensive for me, so I moved to an internet cafe for HK$35 per night,” Yeung said. “In May, I could go to the nearby gymnasium to take a shower, but now I can’t do anything.”

“With the outbreak, I haven’t been able to find a job since April… With the restrictions, I don’t know where to go,” he added.

Yeung’s predicament is worsened by Hong Kong’s hot and humid summer. “When I walk in the street with temperatures hitting over 30 degrees Celsius, I get sweaty and smelly. No boss will hire me if I go for an interview like that. If gymnasiums were still open, I could still go for a shower, but now they are all closed.”

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department closes beaches in light of the new wave of coronavirus epidemic. Photo: GovHK.

Although he managed to find a restaurant job on July 12, he was unable even to start work following the stricter restrictions during the third wave of infections.

Not as welcoming

The city’s charities also face obstacles in providing adequate support. To fight the virus, The Guestroom has implemented temperature checks and hand sanitising stations. Due to restrictions, some of the homeless who approach the centre for help have to wait outside.

“It’s not as welcoming as it was before. But we need to ensure our staff are safe. If anybody becomes sick, we’ll need to close everything,” Cheng said.

The pandemic has also forced ImpactHK to close leisure, sports, and mental health services for the homeless just when they are most needed. With the closure of classes, homeless individuals are cut off from their community and support network.

This is particularly hard on those who struggle with mental illness and no longer have access to counselling services. “They no longer have their community,” Cheng said. Not knowing what else to do, Cheng said she worries that some will turn to dangerous habits. “They are bored. Some might turn to alcohol.”

File Photo: GovHK.

The shelter has also received complaints from neighbours concerned about breaches of social distancing when homeless individuals line up for food handouts. “There have been complaints that the lines are too long. This is a big challenge because we want to continue to provide food for the community, we don’t want to stop because there are restrictions,” she added.

Despite the risks of infection, staff at ImpactHK still turn up to run The Guestroom and support the homeless in any way they can. “We want to be here for our homeless friends. It’s not a matter of leisure (facilities), there’s a real need,” Cheng said.

The Guestroom in Tai Kok Tsui currently has almost 200 residents.

Complex social problem

The Social Welfare Department described street sleeping as “a complex social problem.”

“To address the emergency and short-term accommodation needs of street sleepers, SWD provides subvention (subsidies) for NGOs to operate urban hostels for single persons and emergency hostels,” it told HKFP in a statement.

In total, the department has made available 635 temporary accommodation places for street sleepers.

MSF provides free medical consultations to the homeless. Photo: Médicins Sans Frontières.

Since the start of the pandemic in January, medical volunteers at MSF have also coordinated an emergency response for Hong Kong’s homeless, including free medical consultations and referrals to the healthcare system.

Government statistics show there are 1,423 street sleepers as of June.

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.