HK’s homeless crackdown
Government-approved operations to ‘cleanse the streets’ have recently taken a sinister turn. Shirley Zhao revisits the now infamous ‘Tung Chau incident’. Photography by Calvin Sit
Cheung Muk-lun has been homeless for 40 years. He has weathered all sorts of trials and tribulations in his time. But one early morning this February, just as a bitter cold front swept through Hong Kong, Cheung lost his shoes, his bag of spare clothes, and his camp bed and quilt. But it wasn’t the weather which took his belongings. It was the government.
In a joint operation between the police force, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and the Home Affairs Department, the overpass on Tung Chau Street in Sham Shui Po was targeted for a clean-up operation on the morning of February 15. “I was still asleep,” says Cheung. “Suddenly the officials came and ordered me to get up and go away, because they needed to clean up the street.” Cheung tells Time Out that he was barefoot at that time and had wanted to fetch his shoes, but the officials would not allow him, and put most of his personal belongings into a truck. “They told me my things didn’t belong to me, they belong to the government.”
According to Ng Wai-tung, a social worker of the non-government Society for Community Organisation, the personal belongings of at least 30 homeless people were confiscated that day. “Beforehand, each time when the police took action to clear up the streets, they would inform homeless people first so that they could pack their belongings. But this time they just abruptly took their stuff away without a word,” claims Ng.
Without notice, Cheung says he and other homeless people were not given ‘enough time’ to pack and move their belongings, so they were removed by the officials as, according to the Home Affairs Department, they were deemed ‘litter and waste left behind’.
Upset with the government, nine homeless people affected by the Tung Chau incident, including Cheung, filed a claim on April 3 to the Small Claims Tribunal against Clement Leung Cheuk-man, director of the FEHD, requesting an apology, a total compensation of $38,500, and an assurance that the department will inform homeless people in advance of any similar operation in the future.
The claimants are all male, aged between 40 and 70; eight are requesting a compensation of $3,000 per person; two claim they lost a gold chain and an expensive watch during the operation, and are asking for $4,220 and $10,280 respectively.
“It was very cold that day and my quilt was taken away,” says Chen Chi-cheung, another homeless person affected by the operation. “I could only use cardboard as a sheet and a coat as a cover.” Chen claims a police officer kicked his neck in order to get him up from the ground, and then took away his belongings, including his identity card, a permit for him to go to the Mainland, a Hang Seng ATM card, a pair of glasses and a cell phone.
“I went to the truck hoping to get my things back, but the police warned me to back off, otherwise they would accuse me of stealing,” claims Chen.
Ng says the homeless people went to the district police station after the incident to ask for their belongings, but a police official told them they had been ‘dumped’.
“Why didn’t you [FEHD director Clement Leung Cheuk-man] give their personal belongings back?” asked Legislative Councillor Raymond Wong Yuk-man in a legislative council meeting. “Why did their personal belongings have to end up in a landfill?”
In a reply to Wong, Leung admitted it was common practice that officials should allow the homeless to retrieve ‘anything that they wish to take back from the litter or waste that has been left behind’.
“But we are unable to return what we collect if these things are already transferred to the refuse transfer stations,” Leung added.
According to Tsang Tak-sing, secretary for the Home Affairs Department, the roles of FEHD and the police in the operation were to cleanse the street and maintain law and order, so these two departments were not technically responsible for notifying homeless people beforehand.
While Tsang explains in a written reply that it was the Sham Shui Po District Office’s responsibility to inform homeless people about the operation, and give them time for packing, he is vague about whether the office had done this requirement on February 15. “As in the past, staff from participating departments would first explain their actions to the street sleepers affected and allow them time for packing and removing personal belongings, including identification documents and other properties. It is only after the street sleepers have removed their belongings that the staff of FEHD begin to clear the litter and waste left behind and cleanse the place,” says Tsang.
Ng is unimpressed by the departments’ replies. He says they ‘have been playing the football game’ when it comes to taking responsibility, and believes the homeless people have not broken any Hong Kong law by sleeping on the street. “Sleeping on the street is a basic human right,” says Ng. “The street sleepers are a minority group. They never intend to interrupt public order. It’s inhumane to force them away by removing all their belongings.”
For more than six months, Benson Tsang has been organising activities to raise money to buy daily supplies for the homeless, in order to promote fairness and the spirit of sharing among Hong Kong’s society. He rushed to the scene after hearing about the Tung Chau incident.
“I was stunned, stricken dumb,” says Tsang. “I felt hurt, worried and angry at the same time. Although we are not professional social workers, we care about the poor. But our rich government can be so cold as to pick on the weakest group in the society! It’s really painful to see a Hong Kong where the elite are allowed to build illegal structures, while the poor are not allowed to sleep on the street.”
Ten days after the homeless people lost their belongings, over 180 people across Hong Kong signed up to help Tsang deliver food and clothes.
But, according to Tsang, fearing so many people might attract the government’s ire and cause further clean-up operations, they eventually agreed to send 20 people as representatives. “When we reached the overpass with bottled water, dinner boxes, bread, food cans and clothes at night, there had been about 100 people there, lining up and waiting,” says Vera Sin, one of the 20 helpers. “Although it was not the first time I’d seen such a scene, I was still shocked. Only when you see it with your own eyes will you believe there really are people in our society unable to afford a meal.”
According to statistics from the Social Welfare Department, by the end of January this year, there were 504 registered homeless people in Hong Kong.
The department started to subsidise three NGOs in 2004 to operate a special service team to provide the homeless with services such as emergency shelters and hostels that provide a total of 202 short-term accommodation places, an annual emergency relief fund of $70,000, and the arrangement of longer-term accommodation.
A further 437 places of temporary accommodation for the homeless are provided by self-financed NGOs in eight hostels and shelters.
When the Hong Kong Observatory issues a cold weather warning, the Home Affairs Department will open temporary heated shelters for people in need.
It is noted that, during the coldest days after the infamous February 15 incident, some of the homeless moved into nearby shelters.