‘Contrast Sensitivity’: An insight into poverty and inequality in one of the richest places in the world

Blog 4: Refugees, Asylum Seekers  and Homeless People in Hong Kong

Christian Action website

Christian Action website

After hearing that Hong Kong-based refugees, another of the city’s poorest and most marginalized communities, will wait for years whilst their applications are being processed, I was keen to find out more. A friend put me in touch with Christian Action based in Chungking Mansions. Christian Action is the only comprehensive provider of services to refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Approximately 4,500 survivors from wars in Sri Lanka, Nepal and as far away as Uganda and the Congo have made it to Hong Kong. They arrive physically and emotionally scarred and in need of support. I met Jeff Andrews from Christian Action. Jeff is a Hong Konger but an ethnic minority as his parents are Indian – he was the first ethnic minority to graduate with a social work degree in Hong Kong, which is both a fantastic achievement and an indicator of how ethnic minorities are seen in Hong Kong.  Jeff has been with Christian Action for 5 years. They are based on the 16th floor of Chungking Mansions in Kowloon – the building itself is ‘infamous’, a hive of activity and a place where ethnic minority groups live, shop and gather, it is estimated that 4,000 people live in the building.

Jeff explained that despite being the only providers of support in Hong Kong they have very restricted funding streams and receive no government funding. Operating on a shoestring with extremely dedicated and hardworking staff they offer educational classes, information, support, counselling (15 volunteer counsellors) and food aid. Perhaps most importantly they provide a place where refugees and asylum seekers can feel valued and safe.  Jeff took me on a short tour of the Christian Action offices, which cover two floors of Chungking Mansions. Space is in short supply and every spare corner was being used. Jeff explained that Christian Action used to occupy more space in the building but it is so expensive they had to give up their emergency accommodation (people often have to wait 2 months before being offered accommodation in Hong Kong) the space is now a guest house and Christian Action pays for rooms there.

Their work very much reminded me of the equally fantastic work of Bridging the Gap in Glasgow, Scotland. Christian Action also works very closely with SoCo (Society for Community Organizations) I was also very keen to visit them.

Homelessness in Hong Kong

For People, We Care;

For Justice, We Act!

 After visiting Society for Community Organization’s (SoCo) office in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest areas in Hong Kong, I now completely understand why they didn’t reply to an email I sent a few months ago asking if I could visit them. They are a very small team of approximately 6 people and the night I visited, along with Jeff from Christian Action, they were mobbed with people coming to apply for a one off grant from the government which had just been announced, although specific details were unclear to us.

SoCO firmly believes that everyone should be entitled to equal rights. Equal opportunity for participation and fair distribution of social resources is the foundation of human rights. In the face of the widening disparity between the rich and the poor, and the increasingly restrictive political arena, SoCo are motivated by a mission to create a caring, equal and just society.

As we sat and waited for Tung, a social worker from SoCo, who was previously an economist, to chat to us, the place just kept getting busier and busier, an already ramshackle, overcrowded office with people perched on stools waiting for desperately needed help, advice and support. It was clear some people were coming straight from work and others from the streets and some people seemed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Tung eventually had a quick break between meeting clients and sat and chatted to us for a while, I immediately felt guilty for taking up his precious time. We were hoping he would walk around the area with us but he was too busy and people clearly needed him, there was probably 25-30 crammed in the tiny office when we left at 8.30pm. Tung would keep the office open until everyone had been spoken to.

Jeff took me on short walk around the neighbourhood. Under one bridge there were clearly many people sleeping on the streets and one footbridge was now off limits to the public as street sleepers had taken it over permanently. This is in spite of the Government’s efforts to fence the area off and try other deterrents so people can’t sleep there.  It was really sad to see all the people sleeping on the streets. Sham Shui Po is an area with many old buildings, and instead of restoring them the government are tearing them down which leaves the residents homeless. It wasn’t appropriate to take many photos, some of these are Google images:

Sham Shui Po

Sham Shui Po

Sham Shui Po_2

Sham Shui Po_2

Sham Shui Po

Sham Shui Po

Sham Shui Po 4

Sham Shui Po 4

Back at SoCo Tung told us that many people are forced to pay private landlords high prices for little space to sleep. He shared the story of one man who rents a space above a public toilet and goes out to work as a security guard at night for very low pay. They have no rent control here. Many jobs, like cleaning, before the handover in 1997people were employed directly by the government but afterwards everything was subcontracted out, people are now paid poorly and have to reapply for their job every 2 years. They are entitled to 7 days annual leave in years 1 and 2 and then it is supposed to increase in year 3. But under these rules they never have a contract for longer than 2 years continuously so never increase their salary or annual leave entitlement. It seems an unfair, unjust and desperately heart breaking situation for so many people. Walking back through the market place after 9pm in the evening I watched people laying out blankets on the ground and try to sell all manner of second hand and counterfeit goods, anything just to make some money.

Dawn Football Team

Dawn Football Team

One of the many positive things SoCo does is organise Hong Kong’s Homeless World Cup team which people think is a very empowering experience. The Homeless World Cup is an annual, international football tournament, use of football as a trigger to inspire and energize people who are homeless and excluded to take a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent their country and change their lives forever. It is a 4-a-side street soccer event, which is fast and entertaining. The first tournament took place in Graz 2003 uniting 18 national teams. 6 years on 56 nations were united for Melbourne 2008, which included the first Women’s Cup. Despite its success, the Hong Kong government refuse to host the Homeless World Cup, Jeff thought this would be a step towards admitting that they have a homeless problem, which the government do not want to do.

Since 2005, co-working with WoFoo Social Enterprises, SoCO have organized one new homeless soccer team every year, the Dawn Football Team , which participates in the Homeless World Cup.

The next, and final, blog in this series will draw some comparisons about poverty and social exclusion in Scotland and Hong Kong.

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