25th September 2022 – (Hong Kong) Many street sleepers and homeless persons are still found in Hong Kong. Amid the suspension of many public facilities and services to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the disadvantaged group of homeless people has been made even more vulnerable during the pandemic. For example, the closure of public sporting facilities and public bathhouses inadvertently means the loss of a place for street sleepers to take showers. Furthermore, the Government’s ban on dine-in services after 6 pm has left many homeless people who used to stay overnight in 24-hour fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s without a place to take “shelter”.
According to a 2022 report published by research office of the Legislative Council, the number of street sleepers has been on the rise in recent years. Between 2013-2014 and 2018-2019, the number of street sleepers registered on the Street Sleeper Registry of the Social Welfare Department (“SWD”) increased by some 75% to 1,297, and most of them resided in Kowloon. Hong Kong is seeing rising number of street sleepers as the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people at risk of becoming homeless. There were 1,580 street sleepers in 2020-2021, representing an increase of 22% since 2018-2019.
Among the popular spots for street sleepers, the pedestrian tunnel below Wong Nai Chung Gap Flyover in Happy Valley has become a hotspot for many years.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 100 households lived together inside the tunnel, twice as many as before the epidemic. Nationalities include Nepalese, Thais, Filipinos, Indonesians, Pakistanis, and even Caucasian expatriates were found. The locals became “minorities” in the area. A 64-year-old homeless person who used to live on the site for many years said that the tunnel was hot and humid. Fortunately, he was able to get a shelter with the assistance of a volunteer group.
Some concerned groups pointed out that due to the sweltering heat, the homeless and those living in subdivided flats were all deeply affected. They urged the government to formulate policies to provide support.
The homeless population is not entirely homogeneous, and three key subgroups are commonly observed, namely long-term chronic homelessness, and short-term episodic and transitional homelessness. In Hong Kong, sleeping on the streets seems to be more than a temporary arrangement for many street sleepers who are suffering from medium- and long-term homelessness.
The employment prospects for street sleepers have further deteriorated more recently amid a weakened job market in times of economic downturn. Many street sleepers had reportedly lost their jobs during the pandemic, thus a lower portion of them reported salary as among their
key financial source according to an ad-hoc survey conducted jointly by local academics and non-government organisations (“NGOs”) (Figure 4). While the survey also suggests that government assistances (particularly, Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme, or
“CSSA”) remain the most important financial source for street sleepers (as about half of them reported receiving such assistances), it is noted more street sleepers have turned to NGOs or their own network of friends for support, conceivably as formal approval from government assistance schemes may take some time to process.
To address the emergency and short-term accommodation needs of street sleepers, there are NGOs providing shelters either through subventions from Social Welfare Department (SWD) or on a self-financing basis. Yet, according to SWD’s statistics, the overall supply of these accommodation places remained virtually unchanged between 2015-2016 and 2020-2021, dwarfed by some 75% increase in the number of street sleepers over the same period.
SWD has also been providing subventions to three NGOs to each operate an Integrated Services Team (“IST”) for street sleepers, aiming at addressing street sleepers’ needs and helping them give up street sleeping. ISTs handled an average of some 620 cases per year between 2015-2016 and 2019-2020, while the caseload jumped to 837 in 2020-2021 with more than one-third of the cases resulting in people giving up street sleeping after receiving support from ISTs.