The Hong Kong government has been urged to scrap its “practice of eviction” against street sleepers, as the city’s homeless population rose to over 1,500 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, results from a survey showed.

Seven NGOs including the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) and ImpactHK published findings of the Hong Kong Homeless Census 2021 on Tuesday, which put the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city at 1,532. They included 983 street sleepers, 207 tenants living in temporary housing and 342 people staying in hostels run by NGOs.

Seven NGOs in Hong Kong hold a press conference on October 26, 2021 about the city’s homeless population. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The welfare groups spoke to 711 homeless people during an overnight census conducted on July 9 and 10, which involved more than 300 volunteers. Other organisations involved in the research were the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, the Salvation Army, St. James’s Settlement and Mercy HK.

Kowloon West was found to be the home of 63 per cent of the respondents, followed by 15.5 per cent living on Hong Kong Island and 9.1 per cent in New Territories West. Almost half of the respondents said the expensive rent in Hong Kong was why they became homeless, while others cited inability to afford housing owing to unemployment, and problems with their family or roommates.

The study found that the respondents had spent an average of 46 months homeless. Close to 40 per cent said they suffered from chronic illness and 15.5 per cent suffered from physical disabilities. A quarter of the respondents told the groups that they had taken psychiatric medicine during the past six months, and close to 30 per cent showed signs of depression, researchers found.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The census released on Tuesday adopted a wider definition of “homeless people,” compared to the government, which only counts people sleeping on the streets. Figures shared by the Social Welfare Department in June last year showed Hong Kong had a total of 1,432 registered street sleepers in the year 2019 -20.

Professor Wong Hung of the Yunus Social Business Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong told HKFP that the scope of the study covered people staying in guesthouses and hostels because their living condition was still subpar.

“They are not on the streets, but they still live in inadequate housing without a home. So we call them homeless people,” he said. “Our advocacy is not only for counting purposes. It is not just a conceptualisation problem. It is about how you treat these people – do you consider their right and dignity?”

The scholar went on to say that there were “relapse cases” where people who lived in temporary housing went back to the streets when they “could not stand the situation” in the hostels.

Professor Wong Hung, director of the Yunus Social Business Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

A male homeless person at Tuesday’s press conference, who is currently without a roof for the third time in his life, said he had to quit a capsule hostel after discovering he was sharing a living space with some drug addicts.

“It was a major problem, because [the people there] were too complicated. There were people taking drugs and I got scared, so I left after living there for six months,” he said.

‘Gov’t dispersion’

The NGOs said 20.5 per cent of the homeless people surveyed said they faced “dispersion by government departments” who sent staff to “forcibly” drive them away from an area. Nearly 20 per cent of the respondents said they had difficulty sleeping on the ground because government staff “spilled odorous powder,” while one sixth said their personal belongings were often confiscated by the authorities.

Ng Wai-tung (left) of the Society for Community Organization and a homeless person (right). Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The government should “abolish the current practice of eviction,” said SoCO community organiser Ng Wai-tung, who has helped street sleepers seek damages from the government after their property was lost in street cleaning operations.

“It is a waste of social resources for homeless people to sue the government,” Ng said, adding the city should implement a “friendly” homelessness policy rather than seal off underpasses, close stadiums and spray disinfectant in parks in a bid to drive out those living in the streets.

The NGOs urged the government to increase public housing supply and expedite the waiting time, as well as consider converting vacant units in industrial buildings for transitional housing.

The authorities should also extend the duration of stay in subvented accommodation from six months to two years, the groups said, to give homeless people sufficient time to find a stable job. They added more outreach services should be provided to allow the vulnerable group to build an active social network and equip them with work skills through training and internships.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.