The number of homeless women in Hong Kong has tripled in the past seven years but government welfare measures supporting those living without a roof remain focused almost entirely on men, an NGO has said.

homeless shelter charity
File Photo: Sherin Siew.

The number of homeless women has risen from 43 to 171 people in 2021, according to government census data, said the Society of Community Organisation (SoCO) – a non profit group supporting grassroots communities in Hong Kong – on Sunday.

The increase means the proportion of women amongst the homeless population in the city rose from 5.5 per cent to 10.9 per cent, according to data collected by the Social Welfare Department through voluntary registration of homeless individuals. By the end of June this year, the city saw a total of 1,562 homeless individuals registered, a almost doubling of the street sleeper population since 2014.

Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) presented their study findings on homeless women in Hong Kong on Sunday, August 15, 2021
Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) presented their study findings on homeless women in Hong Kong on Sunday, August 15, 2021. Photo: SoCO.

Despite over 170 women finding themselves without shelter, there are only 31 beds allocated to women at emergency and short-term shelters for the homeless, out of a total of 222 beds available, according to the group’s report, which includes case studies of 15 homeless women around the city.

Government-run shelter spaces for women also reject those with drug-taking habits, mothers with babies, and those unable to care for themselves with a physical or mental disability. Shelter curfews also limit the kind of jobs they can take. Few women would qualify for these emergency services for the homeless as a result.

In 2019, there were proportionally more women living out of 24-hour fast food restaurants — around 16 per cent — than there were among the homeless population, which stood at 10.3 per cent, showing that these women prefer seeking shelter at overnight eateries than staying outdoors. The restaurants’ light and clientele offers them a greater sense of security, the report said, as women face greater risks on the streets and are in need of more privacy than homeless men.

Trailing spouse

Eight of the 15 women interviewed by SoCO had been diagnosed with mental health issues. “It is common for the homeless to forget their medical appointments, as an unstable living environment means they can only deal with what’s immediate, making it hard for any long-term planning,” the report read.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Four of them said they preferred living on the streets in order to be with their homeless partners, even if it means forsaking a shelter space, as these typically do not allow men and women to live together nor accept residents as couples. Choosing to live on the streets as their partners do indicates a greater level of dependency on spouses for women, the SoCO report said.

“[O]nce, people told me I could get a dormitory bed space, but I won’t be able to live with my husband. They wanted him to go to rehab. How could we be separated? I’d prefer staying here with him,” one study participant was quoted as saying.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.