Homeless Crisis During the Covid-19 Pandemic
On the evening of April 28, Alec Chu sits at the side of a garden on a small square in Happy Valley, an upper-class residential area on Hong Kong Island.
It’s dark around the square, but it’s impossible to not notice his presence.
In his early 60’s, Alec preserved an innocent glaze in his shallow eyes.
His head framed by a red mohawk, hands shiny from golden rings and bracelets and arms covered by a bunch of blurry tattoos give him an authentic look.
Despite that spry aura, his strongest feature is an impeccable sense of responsibility.
From time to time, Alec looks at his watch, then checks his mobile phone for new messages. He is slightly anxious.
It’s close to 8pm and he’s waiting for a group of volunteers. Together they will distribute food and hygiene products to the homeless living in a tunnel nearby.
He knows these streets extremely well. “I didn’t get along with my family, so I left home and lived on the streets. Over 10 years I slept in a tunnel in Happy Valley,” he recounts.
Living as a street dweller brought him into a lot of trouble. “I was hanging out with bad people. We didn’t have any money so we would steal. I was in and out of prison a lot.”
One night, some people came to Alec’s tunnel with donations for the homeless and one of them shook his hand and invited him to their organisation in Mong Kok.
“At first, I didn’t go,” he says. “But then he came over a few more times and I thought, ‘Well okay, maybe I’ll go’.”
The organisation gave Alec a card to a laundry service and that gesture really transformed him. “My clothes smelled very bad,” he explains, “We couldn’t do our laundry of course, only throw out old clothes. When they gave us that card for the laundromat, we were very touched.”
The relation between him and the people from ‘Impact HK’, as the local organisation that assists homeless people is called, developed into a friendship.
Soon after Alec became one of the staff workers. He started to earn an income and lately received his own small home as part of a rehabilitation program.
The organisation slogan, which can be seen printed on t-shirts and baseball caps, is the hashtag “#KINDNESSMATTERS”.
Kindness is something that Alec Chu and other workers from ‘Impact HK’ rehabilitation program also share with the people they now help.
Everyday they distribute hundreds of meals, three times per day, to the homeless, elderly people living in poverty and street cleaners alike from one of their offices in Tai Kok Tsui.
During the coronavirus pandemic, they also prepared sanitation kits to distribute to the homeless around the city in what they call ‘Kindness Walks’ – actions like the one that built the bridge that helped Alec leave the tunnel.
Peter Leung is one of the workers responsible for the distribution of meals and sanitation kits. Like Alec, he also spent time on the streets of Hong Kong.
The 37-years-old recounts that his parents divorced when he was two years old and he never saw his mother again. When his father passed away nearly two decades ago, he was all alone. So when he lost his job as a cleaner around that same time, he could not afford to pay the rent and ended up on the streets.
“I slept at the McDonald’s every night. Sometimes when McDonald’s needed to do their cleaning, I’d sleep in the park,” he remembers. “While sleeping in the park I would be woken up by others and sometimes I lost my belongings.”
Nowadays, Peter feels safer living temporarily in a hotel room paid by the organisation while completing his program and waiting for his own home.
There is an indelible new sense of dignity in his actions: “Most importantly one needs a roof and, on top of that, I have a chance to work,” Peter says.
When asked about what he likes to do with his time now that he has a job and a place to stay, Peter says with a glance in his eyes that he enjoys doing normal things, daily tasks that many people might find boring.
It’s early in the morning and the streets of Mong Kok are still quiet.
Peter leaves his hotel and after dropping off his clothes at a laundry service, he arrives at one of the spaces that the organisation offers to the community.
Together with Alec and some other volunteers, he starts preparing the activities they will carry out throughout the day.
While Alec goes out shopping products to later distribute on their walks around the neighbourhood, inside the office Peter prepares a meal for the staff. There are boiled eggs, noodles, oranges and soup on the menu.
Everything at ‘Impact HK’ is done collectively, including the big renovation work that is taking place at the office.
Ah Ma, a 43-year-old from Hong Kong, is one of the workers helping with the construction, plastering walls and carrying rubble to a container.
At the back of the office, Wah Lui, Ah Ma’s girlfriend, is in the kitchen washing a pile of dishes and metallic pans. They are both part of the rehabilitation program as well.
In November 2019,there was an electric shortcut at Ah Ma and Wah Lui apartment and they lost all their possessions. “I had to sleep on the street for around two months,” Ah Ma says.
For him, the most difficult thing was living on the street together with his girlfriend “I was ok on the street, but I felt very bad that I could not look after her.”
He started visiting the organisation office and helped cooking meals. Now he works on the renovation and also collaborates with Peter on the distribution of food. “I think this is very good compared to the past,” he says. “I don’t have high expectation and I don’t need a large home of 700 sqft or 1,000 sqft.”
It doesn’t take long for the volunteers to arrive at the meeting point in Happy Valley for their evening “Kindness Walk.” Alec distributes bags with the food and sanitation materials and the group splits in two to cover the area.
Inside one of the tunnels, improvised tents against the wall make a long and colourful row. In between two tents, there is a small shrine with plants, Buddhas and a small statue of Tin Hau – the goddess of the sea. The altar was constructed by Alec when he still lived in the tunnel.
One of the people that now lives here is a man in his 30’s called David. He tells the group of volunteers that he has just “moved in” after becoming unemployed. David is part of the statistic of the increasing number of homeless in Hong Kong affected by the coronavirus crisis.
However, despite that the number of homeless keeps increasing with the continuation of the Covid-19 crisis and resulting unemployment, most of the people that end up on the street are suffering from other types of problems.
“Often people think that the greatest need for a homeless person is a house,” says one of the workers of ‘Impact HK’. “But what we’ve learned by working with the homeless everyday is that housing alone does not solve homelessness. These people need a lot more support, as well as friendship and empowerment.”
Becoming visible and part of a community is the big difference Alec, Ah Man, Wah Lui and Peter found in the organisation and that helped them change the course of their lives.