With winter chill in the air and the threat of a resurgent pandemic keeping everyone home, Henry Cheung sank into an abandoned couch in the middle of a street in southern Kowloon, Hong Kong, and settled in for the night.
The 64-year-old man had called this spot home for two weeks. Its proximity to a mall gave him access to bathrooms for the better part of the day. But with a government order closing restaurants at night and shutting all sports venues, finding a bathroom has never been harder.
“If I need to pee, I just go to a hidden alley and do it,” Cheung told VICE World News. “What else can you do about this?”
Cheung is among at least a thousand homeless people in Hong Kong who have been pushed deeper into the abyss by government efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, in a stark illustration of how the crisis is disproportionately hurting the poor and worsening inequality in one of the world’s richest cities. The names of Cheung and other rough sleepers interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
The effects of the pandemic had driven almost a hundred people into homelessness, a survey by the local advocacy group Society for Community Organization (SOCO) found in May. The number could be higher now as the economic fallout of the crisis deepened.
Cheung, who is one year away from Hong Kong’s official retirement age, has seen better days as a so-called McRefugee, referring to those who spend the night in a 24-hour McDonald’s. But the Dec. 10 ban on dining in has pushed him back to the streets, and access to bathrooms is just one of the problems he faces every night.
In the nearby neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, Kerry Kwan was also a McRefugee before the pandemic hit, which turned her full-time job in catering into a part-time one. And like Cheung, she began sleeping on the streets after the government banned eating at restaurants after 6 p.m.
“The biggest worry for me is that people sometimes steal our stuff at night,” she told VICE World News, sitting next to another woman sleeping under an umbrella. “I feel safer to be in groups.”
The government’s ramped-up effort to improve street hygiene—by throwing away belongings including blankets and jackets they leave in public spaces—has only made things worse this winter, several rough sleepers and their advocates said.
“Hong Kong has no homeless policy,” said Ng Wai Tung, a social worker at SOCO who has for years assisted marginal groups in the city.
He suggested that Hong Kong follow the example of Taiwan, where the government distributes bags for homeless people to deposit their belongings in that street cleaners know not to throw away.
Better yet, Ng said, the government could build more shelters for the homeless.
There are currently only 636 beds in temporary shelters for street sleepers, a government spokesperson said, less than half of the total homeless population. In response to rising unemployment and homelessness, the city’s Social Welfare Department has said it will put more beds in shelters in March.
“If the government wants to build more beds, they are able to do it quickly, like how they did for the pandemic situation,” Ng said. “But the street sleepers are at the bottom of their priorities.”
For 58-year-old Simon Lee, a place in the shelter would at least allow him to keep his belongings.
Before the pandemic hit the city early last year, Lee lived with his wife in the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen and traveled to work in Hong Kong every day.
The sky-high rent in the city means that the two-hour daily commute was worth it.
But the tightened border control and quarantine requirement have disrupted his routine.
When Lee, a shipping worker, returned to Hong Kong for work early last year, he had to pay HK$2,800 ($360) to stay in government-designated facilities for a mandatory two-week quarantine. The pandemic had also dried up jobs for Lee, the breadwinner of his family. Soon he was unable to afford a room in Hong Kong and began sleeping by a culture center near the picturesque Victoria Harbor.
In response to questions from VICE World News about what the government has done to aid rough sleepers during the pandemic, a spokesperson said it “stepped up their efforts to proactively reach out to street sleepers, providing them with up-to-date health related information and in-kind assistance such as face masks and hand sanitizers as well as referring them to hostels.”
Such a response highlighted how little Hong Kong officials understood the needs of people who don’t have a home.
“Instead of the virus itself, they are more worried about being caught for not wearing face masks,” SOCO’s Ng said. The maximum penalty for not masking up in Hong Kong is HK$10,000 ($1,300).
Homelessness is also linked to mental health as both a cause and a consequence. A 2015 study found over half of Hong Kong’s homeless population suffered from mental illness, and only about one in nine of them were receiving treatment.
After having lobbied the government for better mental care for street sleepers for a decade, Ng said that the authorities finally added nurses in street outreach teams in October to assess the mental health of the city’s homeless.
But the pandemic was only the most recent catalyst to the city’s rising homelessness, which stems in part from its being the world’s most expensive home market, a dubious title it has held for ten years.
Even before the pandemic, the number of homeless people had risen for five straight years, from 896 in 2015 to 1,423 in 2020, according to government data. Between 2013 and 2018, SOCO estimated that the number of McRefugees jumped six-fold, from 57 to 448.
It takes over five years for an adult Hong Konger to be assigned a public housing flat, and more than three years for elderly residents over 65 years old. Cheung has been in the line for a public housing flat for more than two years and counting.
Short of being miraculously allotted a flat overnight, Cheung said he hoped the government would lift the dining ban so that he could once again take shelter under the golden arches.