Uncle Fai is in his 60s and used to be a construction worker. His life changed after he started using drugs in 2000. He quit his job and eventually ended up on the street. “At that time, sleeping in the open area outside the Jade Market was forbidden. We slept in the park instead,” he says.
He is still using now and says the drug problem here has got worse over the years. “Everyone living here is a drug addict,” he says, adding that on the week of Varsity’s visit, two street sleepers had died of overdoses. “Just two days ago, a man passed out on the street after injecting heroin. He didn’t even have his pants on, and he was still holding a syringe in his hand,” says Uncle Fai.
The body was cleared away by the Food and Hygiene Department.
“If one of us dies, the government just equates it with the death of a cockroach or an ant. They will not regard it as the death of a human being,” he says, “We see ourselves as rubbish. We are old and we are just a burden on society.”
Regarding themselves as marginal beings, street sleepers do not dare to enter the Jade Market. There is a clear demarcation btween the inside’ and outside of the market. Shopkeepers grumble about the presence of street sleepers, who scare away their customers “ If you give food to these drug users, you are not helping them. What you are doing is worsening society,” says Lin, one of the shopkeepers near the entrance of the market.
Apart from the community on the footbridge and the one in front of the Jade Market, there is also a community of around 30 Vietnamnese ex-asylum-seekers who gather outside the Tung Chau Street Temporary Market.
However, not all of them are street sleepers. Some of them are able to rent a sub-divided unit in Sham Shui Po, but they visit their friends on the street once or twice a week. They gather around a small table with stools and a cassette radio to chat and smoke and drink tea, which they invited Varsity to share in a friendly exchange.
But these are just some of the street sleepers’ communities in Sham Shui Po. According to Father Franco Mella, who visits the street sleepers at the Jade Market every week, there are around 3000 street sleepers in the area. The exact number is hard to pinpoint because it is a transient population.
“It depends on which place is available…like the guerrillas they move from one place they go to another place until they find a proper place to stay in,” says Mella.
He believes temporary assistance is not the answer to the problem of street sleepers. “The street sleepers should not be the object of our charity work, of our interest, of our deep concern, of our help,” he says. “The street sleepers should move on and we should support them, walk with them. They are not the object. They are the subject.”
He says there is an urgent need for more singleton flats in public estates. Because most homeless people have been abandoned by their families, they have to apply as single people and the application for a new flat takes eight years or more. Mella believes housing is the vital step for them to regain their dignity and a normal life.
“These people should be given a chance when they are young, even when they are old they should not be considered like rubbish,” says Father Mella. “They are human beings.”