Homeless in HK, despite having a job

Warehouse worker Ah-po, 54, spends his nights in the stands of a neighbourhood football pitch in an urban public park in Kowloon. Although he has a job, he cannot afford to rent a decent flat.
Warehouse worker Ah-po, 54, spends his nights in the stands of a neighbourhood football pitch in an urban public park in Kowloon. Although he has a job, he cannot afford to rent a decent flat.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A dweller of a cubicle flat, built within a subdivided "rooftop house", which he shares with other tenants on the roof of a 10-storey building in Kowloon.
A dweller of a cubicle flat, built within a subdivided "rooftop house", which he shares with other tenants on the roof of a 10-storey building in Kowloon.

Many low-wage earners unable to afford cramped, overpriced units

HONG KONG • A plastic sheet, a blanket, a sleeping bag: a makeshift bed laid out in the shadow of towering apartment blocks by a man who would rather be homeless than cooped up in Hong Kong's cramped and overpriced housing units.

Bright-eyed, neatly turned out but painfully thin, 54-year-old Ah-po works in a warehouse by day.

By night, he sleeps in the stands of a neighbourhood football pitch in an urban public park, and has been doing so for three years.

In a city where the wealth gap is becoming an unbridgeable gulf, Ah- po is among an increasing number of low-income earners opting to sleep outside rather than in minuscule units known as "cubicle" or "subdivided" flats, apartments carved into tiny living spaces by landlords capitalising on demand as public housing remains in short supply.

"I work so hard in the daytime - I just hope to live comfortably and well in the evening," he said. "But nowadays the rent is so high." He says he can make up to HK$12,000 (S$2,080) a month when his health permits - he suffers from arthritis - and has been in and out of lower-rent accommodation since his business failed eight years ago.

HOME IS A PARK

I've got familiar with people who come here for morning exercises and we will greet one another. I have a sense of belonging.

'' AH-PO, 54, who works in a warehouse in the day and sleeps in the stands of a neighbourhood football pitch in an urban public park at night.

But with property prices rocketing in the past decade, even a unit measuring less than 100 sq ft can cost several thousand Hong Kong dollars a month.

There is no legal stipulation for landlords over minimum apartment size or provision of basic amenities.

Cubicle flats seen by AFP measured as little as 28 sq ft, just enough room to squeeze in a bed. A grimy toilet and kitchen are often shared by multiple tenants. Even these units can cost around HK$2,000.

For Ah-po, the park is a more pleasant environment and removes financial pressure - he fears his arthritis may stop him from working, leaving him unable to pay his bills.

"I've got familiar with people who come here for morning exercises and we will greet one another," he says. "I have a sense of belonging."

Research by Hong Kong universities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) shows that the number of homeless people rose to more than 1,600 last year, up 14 per cent since their last survey in 2013.

More than a third have jobs.

"If they pay rent, (the accommodation) is small, it's hot, it's humid, there are many insects... If they go into the park or under the flyover it's noisy, but they can sleep," says Professor Wong Hung at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's department of social work. The problem has worsened in the last two to three years as salaries have not kept up with rent hikes, he adds.

There are long waiting lists for public housing, and temporary accommodation is often on the outskirts of the city, meaning extra cost to travel to work, Prof Wong says.

The average age of the homeless is rising as they now tend to stay on the streets long-term.

The government says it is trying to "reintegrate" the homeless, with measures such as providing emergency shelters and social security payments. But campaigners argue it is not enough.

The authorities should focus on building low-cost dormitories in urban areas where homeless people could settle for two or three years, says Mr Ng Wai Tung of the Society for Community Organisation, an NGO that helps the poor.

In a sign of increasing desperation, some of the city's poor are now turning to 24-hour fast-food restaurants for shelter.

The plight of these "McRefugees" was highlighted when a homeless woman was discovered slumped dead over a table in a McDonald's restaurant last year.

One former McRefugee, Ms Angelina Sun, 56, says she stayed there overnight for several weeks when she split from her husband. She was jobless and afraid of being a burden on friends and family.

She now earns around HK$8,000 a month in a factory and is in temporary accommodation in a Christian-run dormitory for women.

"The rental outside the dormitory is very high, even for a small studio," says Ms Sun.

She is resigned to paying half her salary for a tiny unit when her dormitory place expires. "There will be no money left for entertainment, clothes, but I can make ends meet. I can survive," she says.

At the football stands, Ah-po is laying out his bed. He has not told his family he is homeless. It is only after dark that he contemplates his fate.

"When I work, I'm okay. But when I come back after dinner, I will think about my ex-wife, daughter and family members," he says, staring across the dimly lit park.

"I feel hopeless."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Homeless in HK, despite having a job'. Print Edition | Subscribe