How the street sleepers find their place on the street
By Rene Lam and Nicole Chan
Right on cue, there is a “pop” sound and the floodlight switches off. This means it is 8 p.m. The scent of brewing Vietnamese tea mingles with the stench from the rubbish station and the smog from West Kowloon Corridor overhead hangs in the air. A group of homeless people chitchat, gamble and unwind after another tough day.
This scene plays out every day in front of the Jade Market in Sham Shui Po. It is less than a home but at least it is a refuge to a community of street-sleepers.
The area became a hub for street people in the early 2000s after their previous spots in Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok were cleared for redevelopment.
Street sleepers in Hong Kong can be generally divided into three categories, people with mental health problems, drug users, and the jobless elderly. Their family members have abandoned them for various reasons and with no other alternatives, sleeping on the street is their last resort. The majority are men who mainly fall into the first two categories but there is also a community of Vietnamese former asylum-seekers.
“For some, Hong Kong is a blessed place,” says Fung, a street sleeper in his 50s. Looking out from the footbridge he sleeps on, Olympic City and the new and fancy West Kowloon residential developments are just a stone’s throw away.
When Varsity visited him, Fung had been sleeping there for one week. Before he settled on the street, he used to rent a sub-divided unit in Sham Shui Po. He recalls that the space was the size of a single bed. The fleas and the odour due to high humidity and poor ventilation made it unbearable to stay any longer.
Life is simple. During the daytime, street sleepers stroll around to find their friends, go to the library to read newspapers and listen to groups of the elderly singing in the park – Chinese opera on weekdays and old pop songs at weekends. They usually stay within walking distance as they cannot afford public transport.
But life is not completely free on the streets. There are certain hidden rules Fung feels obliged to follow. For instance, street sleepers usually put their important personal belongings on or near to their mattress. Everyone’s mattress marks their own “territory”. He explains he never sits on others’ mattresses, for fear of being accused of thievery. Also, he only sleeps beside someone he knows.
“This is not a hotel. You cannot sleep wherever you want,” he says.
Fung was introduced to the place by a friend. Without any objections from other street sleepers, he joined the community.
While Fung admits that some street sleepers are quiet and unwilling to say much about themselves, some of them are talkative. A woman, known to the community as Man Nui is not a street sleeper but has befriended them. She considers herself a member of the Jade Market street sleepers’ community.
“Admittedly Sham Shui Po is a slum,” Man Nui says, “but I am not afraid as I grew up here.” Man Nui goes to a nearby clinic for her arthritis twice a week and dropping by and chatting with the street sleepers on her way there has become part of her routine.
She lives in a public estate nearby and cares for her brother who has suffered a stroke. Man Nui is distressed by the changes in her beloved Sham Shui Po over the years. She cherishes the memories of the old estates, now demolished.
“We occupied the corridor with our beds and snoozed with our doors wide open. In the new estates, even when you greet people they will just ignore you,” she sighs.
She is not the only one to recognise the sense of community here. “They stay together and help each other in some ways,” says Nisu Sou Lai-sim, a volunteer from Equal Share Action. “Therefore some of them cannot get used to the environment after they are granted a public estate flat. They cannot build the bonds they had with their neighbours as they could on the street.”
Sou says society marginalises the street sleepers. The government excludes them in urban planning and legislators do not show them any support since most of them do not have a vote because they have no fixed address.
The Equal Share Action was founded in October last year and became better known after an abrupt clean-up operation in Tung Chau Street on February 15 this year, a joint action by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, the Home Affairs Bureau, and the police. The officials cleared the area by confiscating street sleepers’ mattresses and belongings.
With the help of social workers, 19 of the victims took legal action and sued they government for HK$3,000 each for property they said was unlawfully confiscated, including identity cards, travel permits and bank books.
On November 6, the government agreed to pay them HK$2,000 each but stopped short of apologising. Most of those involved welcomed the judgement but some of the other street-sleepers had reservations about bringing the case in the first place.
Chu, who used to live with the cluster of street sleepers in front of the Jade Market but has now moved onto the footbridge across Yen Chow Street West says the case will bring nothing but trouble.
A government win would have meant the disposal of their property was justified, he says. While a victory for the street-sleepers could create chaos as others may also sue.
Among the homeless on the footbridge, Chu is known as the “captain”. He helps direct volunteers to the footbridge when they distribute food and clothes to the street sleepers near the Jade Market because those on the footbridge are sometimes overlooked. “Besides, I will wake my neighbours up to share the food given by the volunteers,” Chu says.
This is how Chu came to be regarded as the “captain” of the area. Even though he no longer sleeps in front of the Jade Market, street sleepers there also show him respect.
Uncle Fai, a homeless man who sleeps in front of the market says: “He really takes good care of the place. He has good order. He does not allow theft. Otherwise he will beat us up. The place is very clean in his hands.”
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.”