Who's helping McRefugees?

Who's helping McRefugees?

The plight of homeless people in Hong Kong is a pressing issue, but why do they see McDonald's as a solution?

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McDonald's is a free shelter for many people.
Photo: Ben Pang/SCMP

News

An elderly woman was found dead in a 24-hour McDonald's at Ping Shek Estate in Kowloon Bay earlier this month. The death has raised concerns about the need to help "McRefugees" who spend all night at the fast-food chain's outlets.

The dead woman, aged around 50 to 60, was found slumped over a table, 24 hours after she entered the restaurant, while other customers were unaware what had happened. It is believed she was a street sleeper who regularly spent her nights in McDonald's. Although she had a bag and a wallet on her, police found no identification documents.

McDonald's said the woman had not ordered any food, but staff noticed she was moving, and she had asked for water at the counter.

"To provide a pleasant dining environment, we would not disturb our customers, but our service will be offered promptly upon request," said Wendy Lam, a spokeswoman for McDonald's Hong Kong.

The Social Welfare Department said it was "highly concerned" about the plight of street sleepers and that help was available.

Concern groups said the death was tragic, pointing out that some homeless people weren't unemployed - but because their salaries were so low, they would rather spend their money on food than rent.

Concern groups urged the government to take immediate steps, such as imposing rent controls, and building homeless shelters and more public housing.

Staff writer


Issues

Who are McRefugees?

McRefugees are mostly street sleepers who have nowhere to live because of rising rent or unemployment. So they spend their nights at 24-hour fast-food outlets. Some of them are nightshift workers who want to save on transport costs. They can't make the last train, so they sleep at McDonald's until the MTR resumes service.

Students may also go there if they have family issues, or to play video games with their friends.

The biggest reason McRefugees have nowhere else to go is the lack of affordable housing. Even a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po can cost HK$2,000 a month, a huge amount for someone without regular income.

Unemployment and underemployment are two factors affecting their ability to pay rent. With an insecure job status, they don't have a stable income, which means they can't commit to paying rent every month. It's a vicious cycle.

"Sometimes it was because I could not provide proof of address," said Kong Ho-man, who was once a street sleeper because he had difficulty securing a stable job. "Sometimes it was just that I smelled really bad."

The awful living conditions in subdivided flats or caged homes also forces people out on the streets.

One street sleeper, who would only give his name as Keung, said that the living conditions in subdivided flats were very unhygienic, with hardly any space and poor ventilation. By comparison, a clean, well-lit branch of McDonald's is a far nicer place to sleep.

Some street sleepers have been removed by street-cleaning units. In 2012, street sleepers' belongings were thrown away in a clean-up operation. The areas, including the Ferry Street flyover in Yau Ma Tei, which many street sleepers call home, were also closed off after a decision by the Yau Tsim Mong District Council last year to "beautify" the area.

Why McDonald's?

Most fast-food chains in Hong Kong pressure customers to leave once they finish their meals. And some restaurants do not welcome the homeless.

But McDonald's doesn't ask anyone to leave, even if they don't buy anything, so the elderly, students and the homeless see McDonald's as a place to shelter for free.

Whether or not to ask the homeless to leave is a controversial issue. In 2013, a McDonald's in Tokyo put up a notice saying they reserved the right to refuse entry to homeless and unhygienic people, sparking online debate. Public outrage eventually forced McDonald's Japan to take down the notice and issue an apology.

This episode showed how McDonald's value public opinion, and will go to great lengths to keep their customers happy. McDonald's will only insist that someone leaves if they harass others. They turn a blind eye to people who sleep there.

What about support services?

It's not that easy to get help.

There are hostels where the homeless can seek temporary shelter, such as Yee On Hostel and Sunrise House, which are run by the Salvation Army. Those who rent a room or a bunk bed space at these hostels pay from HK$1,080 to HK$1,260 per month. But the hostels only accept applications from those who have been referred by social workers. Priority is also given to the elderly, and those in poor health.

Some street sleepers have applied for public housing, but they face a long wait. "The government said we needed to wait three years, but I have been waiting for four or five years," said Ah Sam, a street sleeper in Sham Shui Po who did not want to give his real name.

The best long-term help street sleepers can get is to apply for comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA), but even this takes 309 days to process.

In the short-term, homeless people need access to shelters and basic necessities. In the longer term, they need affordable housing and support. Building more public housing would shorten the waiting list, and go some way to easing the problem.

To ensure their ability to pay the rent, homeless people require not only subsidies, but career guidance to equip them with the skills to be self-sufficient. A large percentage of Hong Kong's homeless are mentally ill, or addicted to drugs, so counselling would be helpful, as would a more compassionate attitude towards their situation.

Negative reactions from government employees, such as Scott Leung Man-kwong, a Sham Shui Po district councillor, who said that free lunchboxes handed out to the homeless last year were a "force against the efforts of the welfare department" ignore the immediate needs of people who can't afford daily food, let alone a place to sleep.

Shelter for homeless

Last Friday, I arrived at the 24-hour McDonald's on Peking Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui. It was 10pm. There were a few seemingly homeless people sleeping in a quiet corner.

"They have been here for a couple of days. Our managers have never asked us to send them away," a McDonald's cleaning lady said.

One man, who didn't want to give his name, was surrounded by about six suitcases. He appeared homeless, although he told me that his home was "far away - so I'm staying here. No one has asked me to leave," he said. It's difficult, though, to understand why he was surrounded by belongings if he had a place to live.

At midnight, I visited a branch on Jordan Road, where 10 people were asleep. I saw one man eating other customers' leftovers once they had left. The man (left), who gave his name as Fung, said he had been unemployed and homeless for a couple of years, and regularly stayed at this McDonald's.

"I either shower in the restaurant's restroom or in the public toilet near Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei," said Fung.

Fung doesn't claim comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA) as he doesn't like the way applicants are treated. "The staff make you feel like you are begging. It's disrespectful. I'm not going to apply for anything," he said.

Fung also explained why he didn't have a job. "It's my fault that I am unemployed. I don't want to work but I gambled. So I didn't have much money to pay rent or buy food," he said, adding that he doesn't have any plans to change his lifestyle.


Bonus point

1,400 - The number of homeless people who spend their nights on the streets and in 24-hour restaurants in Hong Kong, according to a 2014 City University study


Voices

"A subdivided flat of just 30 sq ft in Sham Shui Po would cost you HK$2,000 a month to rent these days."
Lee Tai-shing, chief community organiser for the Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance

"The total number of homeless people [according to government statistics] is believed to be an underestimation, given the highly mobile nature of the homeless."
Constance Ching Wing-lok, project supervisor of the City-Youth Empowerment Project

"To complement the modern lifestyle of people in Hong Kong, some McDonald's restaurants operate 24 hours a day. We welcome everyone [in] our restaurants any time and would not disturb them."
Wendy Lam, a spokeswoman for McDonald's Hong Kong

"The money I earn now is just enough to buy food; sometimes when there isn't enough, I eat one meal a day. It's not that I don't want proper work, but at my age and with my health, it's hard to find jobs."
Leung Bing-kuen, a 60-year-old homeless man


Word Watch

Unemployable (adjective)
Meaning: unable to get a job due to qualifications, age, health problems, or other reasons
Use it: Someone who is 70 years old with serious health problems is pretty much unemployable.

Unemployed (adjective)
Meaning: jobless
Use it: Alex has been unemployed for three months.

Unemployment (noun)
Meaning: the number or proportion of people without jobs
Use it: The overall unemployment rate in Hong Kong was 3.4 per cent in 2014.

 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Who's helping McRefugees?

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