Inside the small office of charity group Society for Community Organization (SoCO), five Hong Kong street sleepers slowly opened envelopes from the city’s Judiciary, each containing a cheque for HK$101.10.
The odd amount was their compensation from the government for tossing away their bedding, clothing and other personal belongings during a cleaning and anti-crime operation at Tung Chau Street Park in December 2019. Riot police were also involved as the Force made six drug-related arrests in the recreational area that was home to at least 20 street sleepers.
Holding their letters from the Small Claims Tribunal, Ng Tsui-yau, Yuen Siu-bik, Chow Hung-kwong, Chan Chi-wing and Chan Tai-fat squinted and glanced at the document briefly, before putting the letters down and resting with their eyes closed.
“I wanted to tear [the cheque] up,” claimant Chan Tai-fat said at a press conference on Tuesday. The 46-year-old, who originally asked the authorities repay him HK$13,290 for the items he lost, said he would not be able to replace his bed and bedding with the meagre amount.
“I think [the compensation] is useless,” he said.
A total of seven street sleepers were compensated, but only five showed up at Tuesday’s press conference where the NGO handed cheques to the claimants.
The government payment came around four months after the tribunal ruled in March that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) failed to exercise “reasonable care,” when the street sleepers’ possessions were mixed up in the rubbish bins. Adjudicator Arthur Lam said at the time that it would be very difficult for homeless individuals who were not present at the scene to find their belongings after the government operation.
While the verdict marked the first time such claims had been substantiated in the tribunal – as previous complaints SoCO helped file were resolved through settlements – the adjudicator said the street sleepers had failed to present sufficient proof to assert ownership of the items. They had no photos of their belongings or receipts proving their purchase, Lam said, and the tribunal only ordered the government to repay a nominal compensation of HK$100 for discarded bedding.
The amount was an “a major insult,” claimant Chow told the press on Tuesday. Chan Chi-wing said he would have earned more if he had “begged for money” over the past two and a half years since his possessions were discarded in the government operation.
Chow and Chan were among six people who urged the tribunal to raise the payment to at least HK$1,000 in April. In their request, the group attached a receipt from a store in Sham Shui Po, which showed it would cost HK$476 for them to purchase basic bedding items including a foldable mattress, a pillow and a duvet.
The request was denied last month, however, as adjudicator Lam said those seeking damages in a civil litigation had the responsibility to present evidence to back their claims and the value of their claimed loss. The receipt attached was irrelevant to their belongings that had been thrown away, Lam said, because it was issued after the tribunal’s ruling and the products shown were not the items lost.
“I ruled that each claimant should receive a nominal compensation of HK$100, not because I believed that the bedding of each claimant was only worth HK$100. But rather there was no credible evidence in the case to prove the loss of each claimant,” Lam wrote in a written judgement handed down on July 21.
The lawsuit which began in August 2020 lasted almost two years before the street sleepers won their case. There were 14 claimants initially, but two died and SoCO lost touch with four over the course of proceedings. Less than two weeks before the NGO handed them their cheques, the cohort suffered another loss, with claimant Lau Ka-hei passing away earlier this month.
The five present on Tuesday observed a moment of silence for the 39-year-old at Tuesday’s media briefing, as SoCO staff lit a candle and placed it next to a photo of the late claimant.
Lau was one of the few street sleepers who frequently took part in activism on the issue of homelessness, SoCO Community Organizer Ng Wai-tung recalled on Tuesday. He handed in a petition on behalf of the group to the LCSD headquarters in Sha Tin in April, when they demanded an apology from the government for the incident. The department eventually offered their first formal apology later that month.
Asked if they regretted pursuing legal action against the government, claimant Chan Tai-fat said it was the first time the authorities had openly admitted that they were wrong in how they treated the belongings of street sleepers.
“Even though we lost so many things, we wanted to let people know that [the authorities] were wrong,” he said.
Kate Chiu, a Hong Kong Shue Yan University student who contacted SoCO after reading news reports on the case, told reporters on Tuesday that she was “saddened” by what happened to the claimants. The 19-year-old and her friends later visited the street sleepers affected and donated supplies including wheelchairs and tents, as well as home appliances to those who had moved to a hostel.
Chiu said the supplies they handed to street sleepers were only short-term remedies that were “far from enough” to help Hong Kong’s population of people experiencing homelessness. It would depend on the government to devise policies to address the root causes of the societal issue of homelessness, she said.
“Even though the public have different views on homeless people, as part of society, their dignity as human beings should not be trampled,” the university student said.
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