LONDON, The United Kingdom — While some countries no longer perceive COVID-19 as a threat, one cannot deny that the pandemic has left behind many distressing consequences. In Hong Kong, not only has the pandemic made the grassroots more challenging to survive than ever, but it also has expanded the capacity of the bottom of the social ladder by increasing the number of homeless people. According to research by Hong Kong’s Welfare Service Research Office, the city had 1,580 street sleepers between 2020 and 2021, which was a rise of 22% since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a local organization, The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), has responded to the issue swiftly and dedicatedly. Focusing on homelessness in Hong Kong, this article will discuss how COVID-19 has affected people’s livelihoods and living circumstances before turning to the effort of SoCO and its Community Organiser, Ng Wai-tung, whom The Borgen Project spoke to in an interview.
COVID-19 and Homelessness in Hong Kong
The pandemic has created a new group of homeless people – returnees to Hong Kong. According to official data from 2021, among the total homeless people, 35.8% of them belonged to the returnees category. Without a home in Hong Kong, the returnees found themselves in a difficult situation after the government suspended quarantine-free cross-boundary traveling between the city and Mainland China in 2020. Meanwhile, many returnees also lost their jobs due to a deteriorated labor market amidst an economic downturn, making them financially insecure and struggling to afford rent. In short, with the travel suspension and the lack of money, those returnees had no choice but to become homeless.
Looking at the age groups of homeless people since the outbreak of COVID-19, a pattern is showing: a higher number of younger people have been sleeping on the streets. According to Welfare Service’s research, almost 500 homeless people belonged to the age group of 30-49 between 2020 and 2021. However, during pre-pandemic times, less than 400 people from that age group became homeless.
The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO)
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have done more to help the homeless,” Wai-tung told The Borgen Project. For instance, the organization spent its entire emergency fund in 2020 – a sum of 140,000 HKD ($17,835) to rent governmental accommodations for the homeless – “this helped 200 people,” Wai-tung said.
However, there is a problem with the governmental hostels, which is the lack of private rooms. According to the Community Organizer, female homeless people tend to show a greater emotional attachment than their male counterparts and want to live with their partners. Consequently, privacy becomes necessary for the homeless. To solve this issue, SoCO runs a hostel in the Tai Kok Tsui district of Hong Kong. Within the hostel, there are four apartments with six small rooms within each home unit. “In this way, residents can have privacy. Moreover, we hope this housing project can show the government how outdated their accommodations are and improve the living standard of the homeless,” Wai-tung added.
Not only does the organization help homeless people practically, but it also supports their mental needs. Being a social worker for many years, Wai-tung understands the characteristics of homeless people. “They tend to lose motivation; they see themselves as a failure and are more inclined to give up on themselves. Our job is to work with them and accompany them.”
Interestingly, before the pandemic, to help the homeless to regain their motivation and confidence, SoCO led a homeless soccer team to participate in the Homeless World Cup annually. Beginning in 2004, when the organization formed a homeless soccer team to participate in the Homeless World Cup in Scotland that year, the discipline and performance of the soccer team showed SoCO that anyone could make a change if they wanted.
Social Worker – A Dream Job
Wai-tung’s interest in community development started with a book he read when he was a boy called “The Blood and Tears of Workers.” It talks about grassroots workers who had suffered work injuries. “Despite the workers asserting themselves, the government didn’t listen. I think the grassroots are in a similar situation today,” the Community Organizer said.
Looking around the world, COVID-19 has left many undesirable impacts. One of them is the impact on the grassroots in Hong Kong, turning many into homeless. Among all the street sleepers, an increasing number belonged to the new category – returnees to Hong Kong. Directly affected by COVID-19 and the government’s policies, the returnees are in a struggling position. Yet, good news can still exist amidst times of chaos and uncertainty – people willing to support the needy – SoCO.
By providing the homeless with accommodations that are tailored to their needs, as well as understanding their psychological thinking, SoCO shows its care towards the grassroots. While the issues derived from COVID-19 and homelessness in Hong Kong will not disappear outright, with the effort and dedication of SoCO and individuals’ passions like Wai-tung, the lives of the city’s homeless will continue to change – positively.
– Mimosa Ngai
Photo: With permission from Ng Wai-tung, Community Organiser of The Society for Community Organisation