Monday, 31 March 2014

Homeless Numbers Underestimated

A homeless person in Hong Kong photographed by Lei Jih-sheng
There seems to be a major discrepancy in numbers with regards to the homeless in Hong Kong. A City University study has found the estimate could be double what the government thinks it is.

The government's tally over 15 years ago was at 674, while the university together with three community organizations put the number at 1,414.

The Homeless Outreach Population Estimation project lasted for eight months and counted people at 180 locations, including temporary shelters and 24-hour restaurant chains, where many find refuge.

In addition the university surveyed 323 homeless people and found 40 percent had low-paying jobs with an average salary of HK$5,688. About half of the respondents had attended high school.

Constance Ching Wing-lok, project supervisor of the City-Youth Empowerment Project, which organized the study, said rising rents and low incomes force many people into the streets.

"Many of these homeless people don't earn enough even for a subdivided flat, which costs at least HK$3,800 these days."

Ching said previous government numbers didn't give an accurate picture of the situation because they did not include those who lived in temporary shelters or other temporary accommodation.

"The [government's] total number of homeless people is believed to be an underestimation, given the highly mobile nature of the homeless," she said.

The last citywide count was conducted by the Social Welfare Department in 1999. It now gets its numbers from the Street Sleepers Registry, counting street sleepers but not those living in shelters. There were 555 street sleepers recorded in 2012.

As expected, Yau Tsim Mong and Sham Shui Po had the highest number of homeless people, with two-thirds over the age of 50, the youngest at 21, the oldest 89.

Another interesting statistic is that 93 percent of those surveyed were male, with them being homeless an average of four years. One said he'd been without a home for 36 years.

Ng Wai-tung of the Society for Community Organization said the government should provide more shelters for single homeless people and extend the length of time they could stay there so that they could apply for public housing.

It is disappointing to see the government not have as accurate numbers as possible on the homeless, particularly under Chief Executive Leung Chung-ying's watch.

He has made combating poverty one of his biggest concerns at the moment, but to not have a good picture of what's going on with the homeless shows the government really doesn't understand them.

If the government did, it would try to understand that homeless people are very mobile and will go wherever they need to go to find shelter. They also go, as mentioned earlier, to places like 24-hour McDonald's just to get some temporary reprieve, a warm place to sit down for a couple of hours. And assuming that those living in shelters are not homeless is ridiculous -- that is the way to sweep the problem under the carpet. All these people need to be taken into account.

And what about learning about their plight and how they fell on bad times? Finding out how they came to this situation can help the government have adequate services in place for them such as skills training or some kind of counselling to help them on their feet.

No one chooses to be homeless and in some cases they might have made some bad choices or mistakes along the way. They most desperately want some sense of dignity, but the government seems to like to clear the streets of them, pushing them further into the fringes of society.

Hong Kong is a wealthy city and is hardly a welfare state compared to places like the UK and Canada.

If Leung's administration is determined to combat poverty, it should take these latest numbers seriously and consider 1,414 a conservative estimate of how many homeless really are in the city.


  1. I can easily believe that there are more than 1,414 homeless people in Hong Kong. In my area alone, I see several people sleeping out on the streets (under overpasses, on the steps of closed stores, etc.) -- and yes, the vast majority of them look to be over 60, probably even 70.

    It is a serious blot on the government of "Asia's World City" that there are so many homeless people -- and this especially so since, unlike many who I came across in the US and Britain, these don't come across as drunken alcoholics or drug addicts.

    1. HI YTSL -- Yes that's why I'm saying 1,414 is a conservative estimate and the government should do more to find out where these homeless people are, where they usually hang out, what are their circumstances and what they need most.

      For it to decide to count some homeless people and not others because they are temporary shelters is not admitting the seriousness of the problem (under the Donald Tsang administration).

      But the government makes no provisions for homeless people, much like the domestic helpers who are left spending their only free day out on the street!