‘It’s an emergency’: Homelessness on the rise in Hong Kong | Poverty and Development News

Hong Kong, China – In a tunnel in the Happy Valley district of central Hong Kong, Michael sits at a table, sorting through leftovers from takeout containers he finds in the trash.

The smell of rancid food filled the air as he opened each container. Whatever he considers safe to eat will be his next meal.

Behind him are all the possessions he owns: a mattress, a suitcase and a set of office furniture. These are things that other people have thrown away – items that are now very precious to him.

He has lived in the pedestrian tunnel for four years.

“There are a lot of mosquitoes and bed bugs. You can see there are many. And I’m having a fungal infection,” Michael, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera.

“I used to live on the other side of Hong Kong but I came here after my belongings were taken.”

ImpactHK founder Jeffrey Rotmeyer and one of his employees walk out of a tunnel where many homeless people live.  There are old sofas and furniture that people have saved from the landfill.  There are cars on the road outside.
ImpactHK founder Jeffrey Rotmeyer says the number of women sleeping in has doubled since the pandemic [Bertha Wang/Al Jazeera]

In Tai Kok Tsui, ImpactHK, a charity supporting the homeless, welcomed hundreds of people into one of their community centers, providing them with new clothes, hot meals and facilities. association with social workers.

“Every night on the street is an emergency. This is a very affluent city — but 1 in 5 people is currently experiencing food insecurity,” ImpactHK founder Jeffrey Rotmeyer told Al Jazeera.

“These are scary times. We’ve seen the proportion of women on the streets double [since the pandemic]and we’ve seen an overall increase of about 25 percent. And we are seeing homeless communities emerge in new areas.”

An Oxfam report in 2022 shows pandemic exacerbate Hong Kong’s gap between rich and poor, with the richest resident earns almost 50 times more poorest in the first quarter of 2022.

Rotmeyer’s organization has helped nearly 500 people get off the streets and into shelters — but he says the scale of the homeless problem in the city goes far beyond what NGOs can do.

“More than 90 percent of these people have no emergency contacts, they have no friends or family members in their lives. That isolation played a huge role in their step toward becoming homeless, so when we looked for a solution, we knew one room wasn’t enough,” Rotmeyer said.

“Many of these people grew up not knowing their parents. We see people on the street with a variety of mental health problems – schizophrenia, psychosis, depression and even Alzheimer’s disease. Our healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with this.”

People are eating and drinking inside the ImpactHK center.  They are sitting at the table with their food and some are drinking tea and coffee.  They are wearing winter clothes.  There are notices in Chinese and red banners on the walls and doors.
ImpactHK tries to help street sleepers but says the scale of the problem means more help is needed [Bertha Wang/Al Jazeera]

According to the Department of Social Welfare, there were more than 1,500 people registered as “sleepers on the street” between 2021-22.

In a statement, the Department of Social Welfare told Al Jazeera that it has increased services for people experiencing homelessness since 2021-22 and will “continue to monitor the welfare service needs of the homeless.” people sleeping on the street”.

“Whether vagrants accept services or are referred depends on their willingness and motivation to receive services. Social workers… will provide the necessary support to street sleepers if they are willing to accept services,” the statement said.

The ministry said homeless people have many reasons to sleep on the streets, including not being able to find affordable housing due to unemployment, family problems, recent release from prison or drug addiction treatment centres, or other personal reasons.

‘I would be happy if I could help them’

Chu Kin Lik, 65, nicknamed Ah Lik, is watching with trepidation as the number of homeless people in Hong Kong grows.

Ah Lik and another HKImpact employee arrange food packages for the homeless.  They are loading packages on trolleys, outside a restaurant.
Ah Lik (left) spent most of her adult life being homeless. He received support from HKImpact and later joined the team. I have a place to live now [Bertha Wang/Al Jazeera]

He knows firsthand what it feels like to have to sleep outside during the cold winter nights and hot summer days of Hong Kong.

He spent most of his adult life on the streets, including more than 10 years living in a tunnel.

“I started homeless as a teenager, and I spent my youth in prison, then the pedestrian tunnel,” he said.

“I always had my things stolen, and there were also fights. I’ve met some people who would treat me to dinner if I got into a fight.”

Three years ago, he met the ImpactHK team while they were distributing social aid. He joined their team as a full-time assistant shortly after.

A thin foam mattress with blankets neatly folded at one end in a tunnel in Hong Kong.  The back wall is tiled with blue, white and teal chevron tiles and has a handrail.  Some clothes were hung on it.
Many homeless people have no contact with family or friends, and some may be dealing with mental health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. [Bertha Wang/Al Jazeera]

“I became happier after helping other homeless people. I met many new people. Now I have a place to live, I have enough food and a job. I also have a dog, I treat her like my daughter. I am happy and satisfied,” he said.

“I would be happy if I could help more people. I am happy if they are happy.”

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