A dozen street sleepers in Hong Kong have demanded compensation for possessions including a wheelchair which were thrown away when police and government workers cleared the park where they were living last December.
The claimants and their representatives from the non-profit Society for Community Organization (SoCO) made their first appearance at the Small Claims Tribunal in mid-August. Their claims relate to an operation on December 21, 2019, when a group of riot police searching for drugs and Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) street cleaners cleared the Tung Chau Street Park in Sham Shui Po without prior notice.
The LCSD-managed recreational area is home to at least 20 street sleepers, said Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser at SoCO with two decades of experience helping the homeless in the district. Most of them sleep on mattresses or folding beds near the park’s octagonal pavilion, with clothes, food and other possessions stored in nylon canvas bags, small suitcases or plastic boxes.
The 12 claimants say the authorities threw away their cash, an Octopus card, a Chinese visa permit, clothing, mattresses, blankets, pillows, a wheelchair and other belongings. The group is seeking compensation ranging from HK$2,200 to HK$13,290.
Ng said it was the third time he had lodged claims against the government on behalf of the homeless, with the previous cases settled outside the tribunal. He estimated that more than 20 people were affected but some refused to make a claim because they feared retaliation from officials and the disapproval of their families.
“If they go to court, their names will appear on the judiciary’s website. Their family members may mind that,” Ng said.
He criticised the LCSD for not giving 24 hours’ notice of the clearance operation, which he said was a breach of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance.
SoCO has also slammed police officers for driving homeless people away from their sleeping spots, meaning their belongings were unclaimed and were eventually thrown away.
“[The homeless people] already think they are the weakest among the most vulnerable groups in society. So whatever reasons the riot police cited when they asked them to leave the park, they would listen,” Ng said.
HKFP spoke to three of the affected street sleepers on the night of October 20, when they described what they lost in the eviction and what meagre possessions they still have.
Yuen Siu-bik and her partner Ng Tsui-yau shared a double mattress. Yuen, who needs a wheelchair to move around, remembers seeing her belongings being “thrown away like rubbish.”
She said she did not own anything valuable in money terms but lost a jacket that was a gift from her younger sister, who died eight years ago. Yuen said it was difficult to ask for compensation for this item. “It’s not about the monetary value, but the meaning of the object.”
The 60 year-old revealed she has been battling drug addiction and her now-deceased sister was the only family member she had stayed in touch with. It would be “heart-wrenching” for her sister to see her now without a roof over her head.
Yuen told HKFP she now has one last gift from her sister, a blue down jacket. While her partner Ng urged her to get rid of the stained garment, she was determined to keep it.
“[My sister] gave this jacket to me not long before she died… I won’t throw it away, I will take it to a laundry. If I throw it away, I cannot have it back,” she said.
Yuen’s partner Ng said he lost some clothes and shoes during the clearance. The 55-year-old now takes good care of a pair of Converse-style sneakers which were given to him and which he only wears occasionally to “yum cha” with his family and friends.
Chau Hung-kwong was another claimant. During the eviction last December, the 66-year-old was busy taking his wheelchair-bound cousin, Ma Yuet-wing, out of the park and missed the five-minute window to collect his belongings.
Street cleaners piled all of his property onto a garbage truck and ruined it, he said.
Chau, who has been sleeping on the streets of Sham Shui Po for over 20 years, told HKFP his most cherished possession is now a second-hand basic smartphone he bought for HK$400 three months ago. “It has internet access, I watch videos on it during the day.”
Unlike most of the claimants, Tse Kam-hung was not present when police and LCSD staffers cleared the park last December. He said the eviction took place a day before the Winter Solstice, an important Chinese family festival, and the evening was so chilly that he could not bear sleeping outdoors without his sleeping bag and blankets.
“I went to sleep inside the nearby public toilet because it was too cold,” he recalled.
Among the list of missing items for which Tse seeks compensation, he did not mention a few books borrowed from the public library. The 62-year-old has been unable to borrow other books since the eviction as he has yet to pay his overdue fines. Now he must make do with newspapers.
Tse has lived in subways and on footbridges in the Sham Shui Po area over the past two years, since he moved out of his “cage home” which was poorly ventilated and infested with bedbugs. He was among the people evicted by the government from the Yen Chow Street footbridge in 2018, when the authorities said the possessions of the homeless people were “blocking the walkway and causing a nuisance to nearby residents.”
SoCo at the time criticised the clearance as “meaningless and unhelpful,” saying the authorities should provide medium-term accommodation or else the homeless would return to the same place in a month’s time.
SoCO has called on the government to adopt homeless-friendly policies and respect their rights, saying their belongings should not just be tossed away. During the coronavirus pandemic, which has boosted the homeless population because of job losses, authorities should open temporary shelters at night, it says.
The Social Welfare Department told HKFP there were 1,491 street sleepers as of the end of September. It said the government’s integrated service teams visit them regularly to provide counselling and offer accommodation and financial assistance.
In response to SoCO’s enquiry about the eviction last December, police said it was intended to combat drug-related activities. It said six arrests were made and suspected drug items were found. “If the property of the arrested persons was taken as evidence during the operation, the belongings will be handled by the court after the case is determined.”
The LCSD said it had been asked by community organisations and district councillors not to forcibly remove the belongings of the homeless, but there were also complaints about hygiene issues regarding the possessions.
“The department will try to balance different people’s opinions and needs, and adopt appropriate management measures and regular cleaning arrangement to ensure the hygiene and order of the venues.”
The next hearing of the 12 homeless individuals has been scheduled for December 14.
Correction 09.11.2021: a previous version of this article incorrectly identified street sleeper Chau Hung-kwong as another homeless man Ma Yuet-wing.
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