Hong Kong welfare groups call for supporting the homeless during COVID-19

Every day around dinner time, a group of roughly 20 staff members and volunteers from ImpactHK begin their daily ‘Kindness Walks’ through districts like Sham Shui Po, Mong Kok and Kwun Tong.

During the two-hour walks, small teams visit around 200 of the city’s homeless, who are living in parks or under bridges. The volunteers distribute food – cooked eggs, fruit, drinks and nutritious snacks – as well as hundreds of facemasks, bottles of hand sanitiser and daily essentials that have been donated since mid-February.

According to ImpactHK founder Jeff Rotmeyer, who established the organisation in 2017 to help Hong Kong’s homeless, ImpactHK is one among few charities still providing services during the COVID-19 outbreak. As of May 6, the city has reported 1,041 confirmed cases of coronavirus and four deaths. 

In addition to its daily Kindness Walks, the NGO also operates the Guestroom, a day centre located in Tai Kok Tsui, in western Kowloon. Here, they distribute meal boxes and offer assistance to homeless individuals who need new clothes, refreshments or support.  

“Due to a lack of quality sleep and nutritious food, the homeless are among the most vulnerable in the face of this viral outbreak,” says Rotmeyer, a Canadian who moved to Hong Kong in 2005. “We need to do all we can to keep them safe.”

 “We need to do all we can to keep them safe,” says ImpactHK founder Jeff Rottmeyer.

Fully exposed

Since confirming the first COVID-19 case in Hong Kong on 23 January, the city has taken serious measures to combat the spread, including school closures, working from home mandates, prohibiting entry of non-Hong Kong residents and implementing compulsory quarantine measures. 

Meanwhile, doctors have urged citizens to maintain strict hygiene habits such as wearing masks, washing hands and disinfecting hard surfaces where the virus can live for several days.  However, such protective measures prove difficult for the homeless, as they are often exposed to public areas and the elements. Moreover, skyrocketing prices of hygiene products such as facemasks (which can cost over HK$10 each in some stores) have made some recommended precautions less accessible. 

Echoing Rotmeyer’s concerns, Jeanette Pedersen, the Health Promotion Activity Manager at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Hong Kong, warns that homeless people are at risk of developing more severe respiratory symptoms if infected with the virus.

“In general, they may have worse overall health conditions or underlying illnesses due to their relatively poor living environment,” she explains. “To make the matter worse, they are also less likely to obtain factual medical information and updates on the current epidemic [due to limited internet access].”

Since late January, staff from MSF have been meeting with homeless people at centres and shelters around the city, including ImpactHK’s Guestroom, with the aim of sharing medical insights, as well as updates on the local situation and preventive measures.

MSF staff show community workers the proper way to cough.

Supporting the homeless 

In Hong Kong, people often become homeless because they’ve lost their job and can no longer afford to pay rent. Recently discharged patients from hospitals, former inmates and rehabilitated drug abusers also have difficulties finding affordable accommodations and a landlord who will rent to them.  

According to statistics released by Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department (SWD), there were 1,270 homeless people registered in 2018 – an 18 per cent increase compared with 2017. Among them, 56 per cent were aged between 50-69, while 10.2 per cent were women and the remaining 89.8 per cent were men. 

However, many charities including ImpactHK believe figures released by SWD do not reflect the true volume of the city’s homeless population. Rotmeyer believes that many homeless people do not register because they gain no additional benefits – be it financial or emotional support – by doing so. “You basically just go there and declare yourself homeless,” he explains. “So there is really no point.”

Since they started working with homeless people in 2017, the charity has observed a growing number of employed people who are also being forced onto the streets due to the city’s astronomical rent prices.

“By my estimation, there are probably around 10,000 homeless people on the streets every night in Hong Kong,” says Rotmeyer. “These days, there will be a big increase due to a lot of restaurants being closed due to coronavirus and all the related layoffs.”

It shouldn’t take a virus to make people start thinking about the homeless

Jeff Rotmeyer

Although they face a bigger risk of infection than most Hongkongers, Pedersen and Rotmeyer found that the majority of the homeless people they have spoken to are not too concerned about coronavirus.

“What really worries them is that more centres or volunteers will suspend their work [due to the outbreak],” Pedersen says. “Because many depend on regular support, hot meals and safe spaces to get by.”

“They face bigger dangers [than the virus] every day, due to hunger and other diseases,” Rotmeyer adds. “It shouldn’t take a virus to make people start thinking about the homeless.”

Rotmeyer believes the government should take the lead in caring for this oft-overlooked community. “I am not expecting the government to be out there working with the homeless,” he says. “But if they could show some compassion – instead of setting bars on benches to block them from lying down or clearing away their make-shift homes – it would bring positive changes to society.”

In addition, Pedersen also encourages the public to help the homeless overcome the viral outbreak through small acts of kindness: “Handing out a mask or two, assisting them with finding shelter or food – these are some of the things the public can do.”