McRefugee:The Homeless People of Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a vibrant modern city, ranked as the world's third most important financial hub (just behind London and New York). But behind all its colorful city lights, organized streets and towering skyscrapers lies a society that is increasingly struggling with an aging population, soaring property prices and fast economic development and competitiveness. This has created the widest income gap amongst its people in Asia.
More and more homeless people have begun to appear in the streets of Hong Kong. In 2007, it was recorded that there were about 400 people who were homeless. The numbers have since increased, from 800 people in 2010 to about 1,400 in 2015.
In addition to their daily struggles for survival, homeless people also need to deal with the social stigma associated with people who sleep on the streets. People tend to simply conclude that homeless people are those who do not try hard enough and are not worthy of society’s support and empathy (sometimes it’s true, if people purposely abuse their countries’ welfare systems).
However, there are many homeless people who are forced into such situations due to unforeseen circumstances and challenges in life. Not everyone who is homeless is addicted to drugs or are bad people.
If given a choice, who really wants to sleep in the streets?
Why is the Homeless Population Increasing?
The ‘new’ homeless people in Hong Kong are often employed and have strong family backgrounds, but it is economical reasons that make them stay out in the streets.
For example, many people live at the Hong Kong New Towns or across the border in Shenzhen China as houses are more affordable. However, these places are relatively far from central Hong Kong and people may find the daily commute to the central area for work expensive and difficult. Many also work irregular hours, working in jobs such as waiters, cleaners and construction workers. Rental at the central area is also too expensive – with half to one third of their income potentially going into rental alone. Taking all these factors into consideration, some people may choose to temporarily find places (such as fast food restaurants) near the central area to sleep in order to be nearer to their workplaces.
Other reasons that people become homeless include getting into a fight with their family and have no where else to go, suffering financial problems due to an illness (e.g. stroke, mental illness) or failed businesses or in some unique cases, choosing to remain homeless because of a personal decision to not to be tied down by materialism (preferring to spend more time volunteering and helping others than spending exceptionally long hours at work like what most Hong Kong people do).
Hong Kong’s average income is about 14,000 HKD per month (~USD1800)* and with Hong Kong’s high living expenses, people have little or no savings (especially those with low income jobs). If an individual loses their job or becomes ill, they may not even have enough to eat, let alone afford to buy their own place or pay for rent.
In Hong Kong, it is a popular practice to rent spaces called the wood panel rooms. These wood panel rooms are simply make shift spaces created by separating rooms using wood panels. Despite the uncomfortable living conditions of these wood panel rooms such as bed bugs infestations, lack of privacy or extreme humidity during the summer, these rooms still remain unaffordable to most people. For example, in Sham Shui Po (one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Hong Kong), a 2 by 6 feet room cost about HKD 1,500 to HKD 1,800 (~USD200) per month in rental and a 2 by 2 feet room can cost about HKD 700 (~USD90) per month.
The Hong Kong government does provide public housing for the less privileged, but the demand is too high and it will take years before an individual is able to obtain a flat.
With the opening of more and more 24 hour fast food restaurants, many homeless people are resorting to seek shelter there.
By day, Hong Kong Sham Shui Po is bustling with people going about their daily chores. By night, many homeless people start heading to fast food restaurants like MacDonald's to spend the night. They usually appear after 11pm, when most of the day time patrons have left. This is becoming such a phenomenon that people who are staying overnight at MacDonald’s are termed as the McRefugees.
To date, it is estimated that 256 people sleep in fast food restaurants in Hong Kong.
The plight of the McRefugees was put on the spotlight when in Oct 2015, a homeless elderly woman passed away in a crowded MacDonald’s restaurant at a public housing estate in Kowloon Bay, with no one noticing that she was dead for nearly 7 hours. She was slumped over on the table in a corner and people did not take notice as it was becoming a common sight to see people sleeping at fast food restaurants.
Do you think homeless people deserves our empathy?
In response to the increasing number of McRefugees, McDonald's representative have commented that they will "welcome all walks of life to visit our restaurants any time" and be "accommodating and caring" to all customers, including those who stay for extended periods. And MacDonald’s was indeed accommodating – with some MacDonald’s staff cornering off areas of the restaurant where the homeless were sleeping and diming the lights.
Not all McRefugees are really homeless, but some prefer the big and air-conditioned spaces at the Macdonald’s, compared to the extremely cramped wood panel rooms that they have rented, while others enjoy the company of others who are also going through the same difficulties as them.
There needs to be more research on the issue of homeless people in Hong Kong and it is critical to find the root causes as to why people living in a city deemed as an economic powerhouse are increasingly struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, social welfare groups are continuing to reach out to the homeless to support them and society should also be more empathetic of these individuals and not be too quick to judge them.
* Data in 2015 from (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/hong-kong/wages)