Hong Kong’s homeless numbers surge to 10-year high as pandemic travel restrictions, job losses take their toll

hong kong’s homeless numbers surge to 10-year high as pandemic travel restrictions, job losses take their toll

Hongkonger To Hanh-duyen, 47, slept on a bench in a park in Tai Kok Tsui for more than a month through summer nights.

With nowhere to live, the childless divorcee took shelter in a public toilet or launderette when it rained, only to be startled by users.

She used to live in Shenzhen, in mainland China, renting a 300 sq ft flat for about HK$1,000 (US$127) a month. She travelled to Hong Kong several days a week for part-time jobs as a waitress or saleswoman, earning HK$500 a day.

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted her cross-border trips and she had to pay for a hotel to continue working in Hong Kong. When she could not afford that, she returned to the mainland, but could not find suitable work.

With her savings running out, To returned to Hong Kong in June, and resorted to sleeping rough until earlier this month, when she moved into a hostel operated by an NGO providing temporary free accommodation to the homeless.

“All I want is a roof over my head,” said To.

Official statistics released last week showed that the number of homeless people in Hong Kong surged to a 10-year high of 1,581 last year.

That was 3 per cent more than the 1,541 recorded in 2020, 17 per cent higher than the 1,348 in 2019, and nearly triple the 555 homeless in 2012.

Nearly two-fifths of those recorded last year, or 601, lived in Yau Tsim Mong district, followed by 424 in Sham Shui Po district. Sai Kung district turned up for the first time in 10 years in these statistics, with three homeless people last year.

There was also a surge in female street sleepers, from 21 in 2012 to 179 last year.

Experts and social workers blamed the pandemic partly for the sharp increase in street sleepers over the past two years, as people lost their jobs and income, and travel was disrupted.

But they also said deep-seated issues in Hong Kong had contributed to the worsening situation, and believed the actual number of homeless to be larger than officially recorded.

“The widening wealth gap, the housing problem, as well as a lack of government policies have led more people to sleep rough,” said Brian Wong Shiu-hung, a member of Liber Research Community, an NGO dedicated to independent research on development issues.

He said the ever widening wealth and income gap meant that any rise in income for many low-paying jobs could never catch up with soaring living costs.

Skyrocketing rents and the poor conditions of the city’s notorious subdivided units which housed the poorest had forced many to sleep on the streets, he said, adding that affordable public rental housing units were hard to come by, especially for single people.

The redevelopment of old districts, including Yau Tsim Mong and Sham Shui Po, where most homeless people gathered, further squeezed the living spaces for poor people who could only afford cheap, dilapidated units.

Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation, said the coronavirus pandemic had worsened the situation for the homeless.

His organisation helped more than 200 homeless people seeking temporary accommodation from just March to May 2020, after Covid-19 arrived in Hong Kong. That was more than the group helped over a whole year in previous years.

hong kong’s homeless numbers surge to 10-year high as pandemic travel restrictions, job losses take their toll

A homeless person takes shelter at the Tung Chau Street Park in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Edmond So

He said job losses and income cuts forced many lowly paid workers, especially in the catering, transport and construction sectors which were hit hard by the pandemic, to end up homeless.

Among the new street sleepers were those who used to live on the mainland and travelled to work in Hong Kong. Pandemic travel restrictions meant they stayed in the city with nowhere to live, he said.

“The government has no policies to address the problems facing homeless people,” Ng said.

The Social Welfare Department provides subsidised hostel places for street sleepers to stay for up to six months, with extension on a case-by-case basis. Some NGOs also provide such places which are non-subsidised.

According to the department, the number of its subsidised hostel places rose from 202 in 2012-13 to 228 in 2021-22, with an average occupancy rate of 73 per cent in 2021-22.

The number of non-subsidised hostel places provided by NGOs rose from 397 in 2012-13 to 418 in 2021-22.

hong kong’s homeless numbers surge to 10-year high as pandemic travel restrictions, job losses take their toll

A homeless person sleeping rough in a subway station in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Edmond So

Ng urged the government to have more hostel places and allow people to stay for up to two years, open temporary shelters for street sleepers, and shorten the waiting time for public rental housing.

In the long term, he urged the authorities to come up with policies to address the homeless situation, setting clear targets and providing better services for this group.

Social welfare lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen suggested including the issue in Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s first policy address in October, when he sets out his administration’s goals.

Tik said there should be more outreach teams to support the homeless and help them move into appropriate housing, while the conditions of the hostels for them should be improved and more transitional housing units built.

He said the city’s goal should be “zero street sleepers”.

“In economically developed Hong Kong, there are still people who sleep on the streets. It is not a healthy phenomenon,” he said.

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