Hong Kong’s new tougher rules on Covid-19 contact-tracing, involving the use of the official LeaveHomeSafe app to enter most government venues, went into force Monday but homeless people who cannot afford smartphones said the change made life much more inconvenient.

The decision has sparked concern among the grassroots, especially the homeless, who fear they may lose access to essential public services.

Leave Home Safe wet market
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

On the first day of the new rule, HKFP followed street sleepers Cheung and Ying to four government facilities they frequently visit to observe how the authorities – who have pledged to be flexible – handled people without smartphones.

The pair, who sleep in Tung Chau Street Park said they felt “helpless” when the government announced the new requirement a little over a week earlier. Both have a 2G Nokia phone provided by community organiser Ng Wai-tung from the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO). But acquiring a smartphone that can support the government app would be a major financial burden, they said.

Street sleepers Cheung (left) and Ying (right). Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“It is very inconvenient to the grassroots, we have no money to buy a [smart]phone,” said 50-year-old Cheung, adding he once owned a HK$1,500 brand-new smartphone, only for it to be stolen within two weeks. Ying, 45, had a similar experience – losing his HK$1,800 device just three weeks after the purchase.

Homeless Nokia
Street sleeper Ying with his 2G Nokia phone. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The pair were able to enter the Tung Chau Street Park Squash Centre, the Pei Ho Street Market, the Pei Ho Street Sports Centre and the Social Welfare Department’s office in Cheung Sha Wan after filling out a form with their full names, contact number, the first four digits of their identity card and the purpose of their visit.

Leave Home Safe
A form for people exempted from the use of the “Leave Home Safe” app. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

They were also asked to declare why they may be exempted from using the app, by noting on the form that they have no smartphones.

‘Relatively smooth’

Ng from the welfare group SoCO said the process of testing the new government rule was “relatively smooth,” except when a sports centre staffer told Cheung and Ying that the app use exemption only applies to those aged under 12 and over 60. The street sleepers were only granted access later when a few managers of the venue showed up.

Social Welfare Department Leave Home Safe
Street sleepers Cheung and Ying at the Social Welfare Department’s office in Cheung Sha Wan. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Some departments are relatively more flexible, some are following the protocol,” the community organiser said. “I hope other departments are willing to listen to our opinion, otherwise we are quite concerned that homeless people may not be able to use public services.”

Asked about their experience accessing public services under the new requirement, Cheung said the process was “complicated.” He also felt “embarrassed” when they were briefly denied access at the sports centre.

Pei Ho Street Cooked Food Centre
Street sleepers Cheung and Ying at the Pei Ho Street Cooked Food Centre. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“It is very inconvenient without the LeaveHomeSafe app,” he said.

Ying said the new arrangement was unfair to the poor. While second-hand smartphones may be more affordable, he still preferred spending money on other daily necessities.

Ng Wai-tung Leave Home Safe
Ng Wai-tung from the Society for Community Organization. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“My [smart]phone always gets stolen. I would rather not buy a smartphone and spend that money on my meals and other daily necessities like my clothes, socks and shoes,” he said.

Increasing workload of NGOs

Government staff told the street sleepers that they may write down the phone number of their social workers for contact. Such a policy was “reasonable,” Ng said, but it may add to the workload of NGOs which had limited manpower if the authorities keep calling their hotline to check the identities of homeless people.

Leave Home Safe homeless
Street sleeper Cheung writes down his personal information on a form. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The only concern is that we may not pick up the phone immediately, or if they call us outside our office hours, then they can not verify the person’s identity,” he said, adding SoCO would not be able to vouch for those street sleepers whom they know by nicknames, but who are not officially registered on their system.

leave home safe toilet
A “Leave Home Safe” code outside a men’s toilet inside the Pei Ho Street Market. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Ng said some organisations donated around 20 used smartphones to SoCO on Monday morning, which the group plans to hand out to street sleepers – for emergency use only, owing to the risk of them being stolen.

Street sleepers Cheung (left), Ying (middle) and community organiser Ng Wai-tung (right). Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

He said homeless people remain concerned that not complying with the compulsory app use would result in a fine. “Homeless people are the most vulnerable among other grassroots groups. It would be a major concern if they are subject to fines and they may not be able to use the most basic and urgent services.”

Cheap used smartphones

Sales of second-hand smartphones on Apliu Street saw a boost over the past week, mobile shop owners told HKFP. One proprietor, who refused to give his name, said he sold at least 15 pre-owned smartphones per day in the last four days.

Leave Home Safe smartphone
Cheap used smart-phones. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The most affordable phone from his store which can support the contact-tracing app is a “slightly beat-up” Nokia that costs HK$580, the owner said, which includes a charger cable. “We had cheaper ones, but they were all sold out.”

Ling, another owner of a mobile phone stall in Sham Shui Po, put up a sign proclaiming: “A super good deal, can download LeaveHomeSafe.” The price of Ling’s pre-owned smartphones starts at HK$300, and more customers had approached her for the old phones. Her sales had not gone up notably, however, as the competition in the huge flea market on Apliu Street was keen.

Leave Home Safe smartphone
A sign outside a mobile phone store in Sham Shui Po that reads “a super good deal, can download LeaveHomeSafe.” Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Since there are many other second-hand phone stores around, I only sold around three smartphones more than usual,” she said.

On Monday, five people were arrested for using a fake version of the LeaveHomeSafe app to enter Immigration Tower in Wanchai. Local media reported that civil servants were among those arrested.

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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.