Friday, 7 February 2014

HK's Poverty Documented

Photographer Lei Jih-sheng has followed the lives of the homeless in the city
A local photographer has documented how Hong Kong's homeless have been pushed to the margins in recent years.

Lei Jih-sheng has spent the last 15 years recording the lives of the city's street sleepers through photographs.

"Over the years, citizens have been more caring and understanding of the homeless, but the government has been going backwards," said Lei.

He explained that when he first started his project in 1999 with the nonprofit Society for Community Organisation, the homeless could sleep freely under overpasses, footbridges and in playgrounds, parks, stadiums and many other places in Sham Shui Po, Yau Tsim Mong and Wan Chai.

But around 2007, local councils started spending millions of dollars on "community beautifying" projects, such as fencing the areas under bridges or paving the ground with cobblestones.

As a result this forced the homeless out of these areas and into hellish living environments, such as subdivided flats in dilapidated buildings or even public toilets, Lei said.

He added the homeless were independent minded and wanted to earn their own living.

In an exhibition at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui that starts on Monday, Lei's photographs show shoebox-sized rooms that cost a good chunk of the money they make from odd jobs, and they have to apply for social security.

Lei's photos will be on show at the Cultural Centre next week
"I'm not a slob," says Ah Kong, who's 59 years old. "I'm a person who's willing to work hard. I have no drug addiction, debts or criminal record, but I still end up on sleeping outdoors in Hong Kong, and claiming social security."

He said that he had a good job in the 1970s and 1980s as a stage designer for TV stations and film production companies like Shaw Brothers.

But then he was laid off in the 1990s when the local film industry shrank and Hong Kong's economy dropped off. Ah Kong then went across the border to the mainland for work.

However the factory he managed in Guangdong closed down in the early 2000s and ended up working illegally in China, losing his job, coming back to Hong Kong, then went back to the mainland again for work as a black market worker.

He has been back in Hong Kong for almost a year now and hopes to get a security guard license and find a full-time job, though he is unsure of how he can afford a roof over his head.

"I claim social security only when I really need it," he said. "When I had jobs I never applied for it. But now rents are so high, even social security can't cover them."

Meanwhile 31-year-old Man-chai recalls being woken up four or five times a night by police officers when he slept outside. "They were very rude," he says. "Sometimes they kicked you awake, and sometimes they used batons."

He now lives in an attic room above a toilet that costs HK$1,500 a month and the roof leaks when it rains. He says that sometimes he'd rather sleep on the streets.

Lei's photographs over the years have been compiled into books and the latest one, Homeless III will be sold at the exhibition. He remembers presenting the first book to then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who was very surprised.

"He said he had never heard there were so many homeless people in Hong Kong," Lei said. "I want our policymakers to read this book so they'll start thinking how they can improve their policies on poverty."

Why are the authorities treating the homeless so badly? What did they do wrong?

All the homeless want is to be treated with dignity. We know the government considers them sleeping on the streets to be an eyesore so it should provide decent housing for these people who are down and out. Instead we have a financial secretary who constantly claims there is not enough money in the city's coffers, but in fact he always miscalculates how much is actually coming in.

Once the homeless have roofs over their heads then they can focus their energy on finding jobs and working hard. A city as rich as Hong Kong surely has some heart for these people?

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