Sunday, 1 November 2015

Hong Kong's "McSleepers"

An elderly woman sleeps at a branch of McDonald's
Last month, a woman in her 50s or 60s was found dead in a McDonald's in Ping Shek Estate, in Kowloon Bay, 24 hours after she entered the fast-food restaurant.

The shock of the discovery has sparked renewed calls to help these so-called "McRefugees", or "McSleepers", because they have no place to go, and the 24-hours McDonald's restaurants are a good option because they are warm and clean.

Social workers have been trying to bring attention of these homeless people to the Hong Kong government, but it still refuses to acknowledge these people need help because they consider them to have roofs over their heads -- albeit temporary ones.

As a result the government says it only has some 800 homeless people in the city, whereas social workers believe it's at least double that.

A woman was found dead in a McDonald's in Kowloon Bay
These homeless people have little or no income, and are forced between choosing to pay for expensive rents but starve, or live on the streets and have some food, and many pick the latter option.

"A subdivided flat of just 30 sq ft in Sham Shui Po would cost you HK$2,000 ($258) a month to rent these days," says Lee Tai-shing, chief community organizer for the Concerning Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and Low Income Alliance.

The Social Welfare Department offers short-term hostel placement, employment guidance, and emergency funds to cover short-term rent payments and other living expenses.

While it's nice to know the department will help out financially in a pinch, temporary housing is not the answer for these homeless people.

And so social workers are calling on the government to impose rent controls so landlords cannot sharply raise the rent every year.

When interviewed, one "McSleeper" said he used to live in a sub-divided flat in Sham Shui Po for HK$1,000, but then it became too expensive and dirty, whereas coming to McDonald's was at least "clean and nice".

The 48-year-old is a cleaner who also gets partial Comprehensive Social Security Assistance for low-income adults, and so he can have a monthly income of HK$6,000 to HK$10,000 depending on how many hours of work he can get.

Subdivided flats are expensive and cramped, dirty too
He has slept in a Sham Shui Po McDonald's for four years now and finds the location convenient, as his job is unstable and where he gets assigned to work changes frequently.

Although he has been offered public rental housing three times, he has refused each time, as the location is in an inaccessible area that transportation costs would be high.

While Sham Shui Po and Tai Kok Tsui have been areas with cheap housing, the government has been gentrifying these areas, making housing more expensive for people who are scraping a living.

A bed space costs HK$1,800 to over HK$2,000, while a sub-divided room can cost HK$3,000.

Social workers have lobbied the government to set aside social housing and communal areas for these low-income people, but people have the "not in my backyard" mentality.

However, when people are given a place to sleep and keep their possessions, earn a living and be able to maintain a sense of dignity, it gives these people hope, and helps them not only to socialize with others, but also makes them feel a part of the community.

Isolation, says social workers, is the real root of the homelessness problem.

"It's okay in the first year or two of rough sleeping, but stepping into the fourth and fifth year, it's hard not to have some sort of mental issues as well as other illnesses," says Wong Hung, associate professor in social work at Chinese University.

We go back to what Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said earlier, that HK12,000 was too much to pay for a dishwasher.

Has he and his colleagues visited these "McSleepers" and asked them how much they need to live a dignified life? The minimum would probably be HK$12,000 if not more.

And why is he sitting on trillions of dollars in reserves when we have at least 1,500 homeless people who need shelter, and over a million others who cannot afford to buy enough food to eat each day?

We pay taxes for a good reason -- to help those in need.

We are a rich city, and yet the buck stops with Tsang, for no good reason.

We ask again -- why is he our Financial Secretary?

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