- For a time, hundreds sleeping at 24-hour McDonald’s joints considered them safe havens, but social distancing laws mean restaurant has closed dinner dine-in services
- As unemployment looms with city in throes of an economic rut, NGOs warn more may join street sleepers and situation will worsen
The golden arches of McDonald's have long represented more than a fast-food restaurant to Hong Kong's homeless.
Hundreds of people who sleep overnight at the chain's 24-hour branches, or "McRefugees" as they are known, have been forced onto the streets after the restaurant decided to close its dinner dine-in services for a fortnight from April 1 to curb the spread of the dreaded coronavirus.
Lily wears a black baseball cap and lilac waterproof jacket. Her mask keeps falling down as she talks. It looks like it is more than a few days old. She says she uses the fast-food chain nearly every day, as she has nowhere else to go.
"I sit there and sleep," she tells the Post.
Lily, in her mid-60s, is one of about 400 McRefugees who now have to find somewhere else for a night's rest as McDonald's in Hong Kong has suspended its dine-in services from 6pm to 4am at all its 244 outlets until April 14.
She says she now ducks into doorways when it rains, and sleeps in a park.
"It is troublesome. I pray that I will stay healthy," she says.
McDonald's explained that its decision to adjust operations was based on health risks and than it understood "different people may stay in the restaurants for different reasons, but we hope they can cooperate and help to prevent the spread of the virus".
Hong Kong is grappling with the health crisis as cases rose to more than 850 as of Saturday, with four fatalities. Globally, the number of those infected has passed 1 million, with more than 58,000 deaths.
As the city's government steps up measures against the pandemic, its latest announcement placed pubs and bars under a two-week closure from Friday, joining a list of other public venues to shut operations. Schools have been closed since the end of January.
Research conducted by the church-backed Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), a human rights advocacy group, in 2018 found there were 448 McRefugees across 109 24-hour McDonald's outlets, compared with 2013, when there were 57 people across six outlets.
"People prefer to stay in McDonald's because they feel more secure. There are staff members and CCTV to look after them," SoCO community organiser Ng Wai-tung said.
Hong Kong had nearly 1,300 registered homeless people at the end of 2018, double the previous tally in 2011, according to official figures. But experts say the real statistic is likely to be much higher, with thousands of residents living in the notorious subdivided flats or "caged" homes, but preferring to rough it out on the streets.
Leung Hip-kuen, 37, is one of them. The 24-hour McDonald's outlet in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong's poorest districts, was a lifeline where he spent most nights, because of poor hygiene and ventilation in his coffin-like 40 sq ft subdivided flat.
Leung, who lost his job three years ago after cataracts severely damaged his vision, pays HK$1,900 a month (US$245) for the tiny cubicle, which has no window and is not long enough for him to lie down. Now that his usual hang-out is shut at night, he goes to a park.
"It is very inconvenient, especially when the weather turns cold or when it rains like in the past couple of days," he said, adding that he had seen more people frequenting the park recently.
Number of people sleeping in McDonald's branches skyrockets amid high rents
Fast-food chains as shelters 'should never happen'
Since April 1, ImpactHK an organisation that helps the homeless off the streets and into employment, has managed to move 38 people into shelters.
"It never should have got to the situation where hundreds of individuals rely on a fast-food restaurant for shelter, and for them to be scared with nowhere to go, is not acceptable.
"Action has to be taken so we are doing all we can," Jeff Rotmeyer, founder of ImpactHK said, adding that he expected the number of homeless to double this year.
"It will get there, because there are no procedures or plans in place to support these individuals. When you look at people living in subdivided homes, cage homes and you look at the job losses … it's not looking good," he added.
Different people may stay in the restaurants for different reasons, but we hope they can cooperate and help to prevent the spread of the virusMcDonald's
Latest figures show the city's unemployment rate increased to 3.7 per cent " or 11, 800 " in the period from December 2019 to February 2020, the highest in more than nine years, with 134,100 people without jobs.
The unemployment rate in the consumption and tourism-related segment of the retail, accommodation and food services sectors hit a decade high of 6.1 per cent, while that of the food and beverage category soared to 7.5 per cent, according to statistics.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said the labour market would be subjected to even more pressure in the near term and the exact impact would hinge on the duration and severity of the pandemic worldwide.
Many newly unemployed are finding themselves on the streets as they are unable to afford rent.
Among them was Peter, who lost his cleaning job in January.
"I felt helpless. Without an income I could not afford rent or food," the 36-year-old told the Post. "I felt like there was no way out."
Thankfully, he is now part of a community programme at ImpactHK and has a place to stay.
Frontline workers who assist street sleepers said they saw an uptick in numbers over the past two months, and believed the trend would continue.
Peace Wong Wo-ping, chief officer of social security and employment of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) said many of their service recipients were out of work or forced into unpaid leave, drastically reducing their income.
"The problem of unemployment has become more serious in the past two months … Once people have used up their savings, then I think the situation will become even worse," he said.
SoCO said in the past two months, more than 55 people contacted its homeless outreach team to ask for housing and financial help, with more also applying for welfare for the first time.
"Some of the street sleepers in Hong Kong have part-time jobs, but in the past two months this has changed," Ng said.
'McRefugees' scramble for places to stay as McDonald's axes dine-in services
On February 26, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po announced a HK$120 billion relief deal in his 2020-21 budget speech, including a cash handout of HK$10,000 to all permanent adult residents, and relief measures for the labour market, based on the idea of "support enterprises, safeguard jobs".
Hong Kong does not have an unemployment insurance system. The jobless can apply to the Social Welfare Department for the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme, which gives monthly cash handouts to anyone in financial need. But HKCSS's Wong said that was for people who had been unemployment for a long time, not for those who suddenly found themselves without jobs.
He called for more flexibility in the system.
"I think if we have a more flexible system for these people over the next six months, such as an unemployment assistance system or emergency fund, which is less restrictive … it will be a great help to all the people who are now unemployed."
'If I die, no one will know until I start to smell'
Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said the government should open community centres to provide temporary shelter services for the homeless in the short term.
"In the long run, the government should evaluate the supply of shelter facilities and support services for the homeless. Cash handouts are necessary for the homeless because many of them have lost their jobs during the epidemic. But their real needs are adequate and affordable housing and appropriate health care services," he said.
Among those ImpactHK has helped off the streets is Ah Lik, who now works for the organisation full-time. The 61-year-old met Rotmeyer in a tunnel in Happy Valley and visited the organisation in Tai Kok Tsui.
"I used to have one meal every four days for 10 years," he tells the Post. "Finally, I have a home and work."
But hundreds of others continue to live on Hong Kong's streets, relying on NGOs and charities to survive. At the thrice-daily meal service that ImpactHK provides, the Post spoke to homeless people queuing up for a free meal.
One of them, surnamed Sum, was carrying all his belongings with him, which included an umbrella, two bags and a folded piece of cardboard. His mask was reattached with a piece of makeshift string.
He sleeps in a park in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong's poorest district, because he has nowhere else to go. Sum said he did not expect his situation to change and that he was not receiving any help from the government.
Another person, Lam Chai has spent the past month sleeping in a park, too scared to go back to the cage home he shares with 20 other men, because he does not want to get infected.
The 45-year-old is in ill health, and despite the conditions, prefers to sleep outside because he feels lonely staying inside his tiny cupboard space.
"The doctor has told me I don't have much longer to live. Being lonely is one thing, but the worst thing is if I die and no one knows about it. If I die inside that box, no one will know until I start to smell," he added.
Unemployment in Hong Kong soars, leaving workers from all walks of life struggling
As for McRefugee Lily, she divides her time between McDonald's' outlets in the day and various NGOs and churches where she can get a free meal.
"I don't want people to know I am homeless, because being homeless carries a lot of stigma. I tell myself to be happy and pray I will find some work, but now that I am old, no one wants me. The meal tickets from the church and charities, that is how I survive."
She summed up what she saw as her existence: "I am like a stray dog, no one wants me. "
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