Homeless Life Stories in Hong Kong and Taiwan
HO, Hei Wah, B.B.S., J.P. / Director, Society for Community Organization
Translated by Ng Hon Wah
SoCO has been serving the marginalized community and street-sleepers since 1999. Since 2002, we have kept on publishing Homeless, which is a series of collections of writings and pictures to record the street-sleepers’ stories of struggling for existence. We once hoped, idealistically, that there would be no street-sleeper in Hong Kong and we could wind up our work with success. It is a pity that things do not turn out the way we wish. After 20 years, the street-sleeper population has risen instead of fallen. The trend in recent years suggests that further increases will be inevitable. The number has increased from 511 in 2011 to 1270 in 2018, an increase of nearly 150%. During the period, the number of government subsidized hostel bed spaces has increased by 20 only. There is a long-term shortage in hostel bed spaces. However, it appears that the government has no intention to “race to make up for the lagging behind” in the same they do for housing and land supplies. Rather, they gratefully allow the homeless lag behind at the fringe of the society.
Faced with such predicament, we can perhaps bring new ideas into our work by looking at other parts of the world. Work for the homeless even in a place as near as Taiwan is worth taking as reference for Hong Kong. Since quite some time ago, Taiwan has let in the British social enterprise for the homeless, Big Issue, translated in Taiwan as The Big Issue Taiwan in Chinese. To the homeless and underprivileged communities responsible for peddling the magazines, it provides employment opportunities, enabling them to rehabilitate on their own efforts. There are also street guided tours for the homeless to guide members of the public to know their life, which if known to few people. As a result of campaigning by the homeless people and their organizations, the homeless may, during daytime, deposit their belongings in stipulated places in Taipei Railway Station and nearby park, where the belongings are managed by designated staff and placed tidily. Thus, the homeless and general members of the public can live harmoniously in the community without interfering with each other.
Helplessly, Taiwan, like Hong Kong, is faced with the challenge posed by exorbitant rent and poor living environment, which propel the rapid increase in the homeless population in both places. The homeless also start to sleep in 24-hour chain fast food shops and internet cafes. Therefore, SoCO hopes that the present exhibition, Homeless-Life Stories in Hong Kong and Taiwan, will unveil and compare the living conditions of the homeless in the two places, enable the voice of the homeless to be heard and arouse public concern for the homeless.
For the smooth holding of the present exhibition and the exchange program among the homeless of the two places, thanks are due to various organisations and volunteers for their relentless assistance. They are: Oxfam Hong Kong, exhibition and exchange program sponsor; photographer Lei Jih-sheng, who for nearly 20 years since 2002, has voluntarily shoot for SoCO the Homeless series of photo albums; Homeless Taiwan Association; Taiwanese photographers Ching-Wei Lin and Yang Yun Sheng; the six writers – Irene Chan, Chan Yau Nga Alpha, Chio Hio Tong, Stephanie Yang, Kim and Ha – who compose for us the stories of the homeless. Most important of all, of course, there are the homeless people in the two places, who are willing to disclose to the public their truest aspect.
We have heard that the film I’m Livin’ It will be screened in Hong Kong shortly. The film is mainly about dribs and drabs of the homeless people’s life in 24-hour fast food restaurants. SoCO hopes that the society at large will not regard the homeless as merely “strangers” and will accept homeless people as part of the society. At the same time, to the homeless people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, we wish to say that, as with the concept behind the social housing ‘Friend Home operated by SoCO since 2018, they should re-establish from the beginning the strength and endurance of life, be robust and independent and change from “homeless” to become “with home”.
In 1970s, Hong Kong was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom and the then conservative colonial government was confronted with rampant corruption within its ranks. There was great poverty and the underprivileged – including boat people, resettlement estate residents and squatters – were overwhelmingly high in numbers.
The Society for Community Organization (SoCO) was formed in 1971 by a group of clergymen and people who cared for Hong Kong’s development and campaigned for a fair and just social system. Through the promotion of civil rights and the organization of the affected people, they promoted respect for those people’s rights and equality for all members of society.
Up till now, Hong Kong is regarded as one of the richest cities in the world. However, lurking beneath this prosperity is great wealth inequality and a forgotten group of poor people. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in caged homes, subdivided units and on the streets, while over a million of the grassroots living in poverty struggle for survival. The underprivileged who SoCO support are increasing in numbers – while the city’s wealth continues to accumulate.
These large groups of people, who are both economically and politically disadvantaged, have their basic human rights neglected by the decision-makers. By organizing the affected people, training residents and staging a series of social actions, SoCO has enabled these people to build self-confidence, understand their rights and acquire the courage to reflect policy problems to the powers-that-be. Originally an underprivileged group of people, they have in unison become a stronger force to propel the reform of an unjust social system. SoCO also works within the community to help the poor, provide support services to grassroots people and mobilize resources and people from different sectors to take part in poverty relief.
Faced with rapid changes in society, SoCO continuously works together with grassroots people to fight for a reasonable livelihood by upholding the principles of “equality for everybody,” “promotion of civil rights” and “implementing justice.” We will continue to soldier on with the underprivileged and hope more people will join forces with us to safeguard human rights and the rule of law, thus enabling the development of a caring and just society.
Introduction to Society for Community Organization (SoCO)