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Sleeping Without a Home
April 04, 2017

Sleeping Without a Home

The number of people sleeping rough on streets was on the rise in the past few years. Some of them had once successfully left the street but returned due to high rent. What makes the situation even more worrying is – among them, one third were in their 30s or 40s. 

A study by City University of Hong Kong and collaborators titled the Homeless Outreach Population Estimation (H.O.P.E.) targets those households who (1) have a history of recurring homelessness and are apparently the homeless, (2) or are at risk of recurring homelessness after being unable to obtain or maintain housing in the private rental market within 6 months. 

Figure 1

According to H.O.P.E. street count the homeless population reached to 1,614 in 2015, Of 36.7% became homeless again, for once or more. With 45.4% (2017) were employed whereas compared to 20.7% (2013). Among them, 29.8% of those were in the age of 35-44.  

The situation is worrying in past five years, with the maximum recurring number climbing from 2.8 (2013) to 4.2 (2015), up to 4.4 (2017). The average length of recurrence median interval was 6 months, over 1/2 of people (50.5%) reported having been homeless for more than once in 2017. 

Fig 2

Survey conducted on those who were homeless, subsequently found housing, and then became homeless again, for once or more. 

Source: City University of Hong Kong and collaborators titled the Homeless Outreach Population Estimation (H.O.P.E.)


Unaffordable rent was the most highly-reported reason that contributed to homelessness (25%), with the next highest being not having enough income to pay rent (20.38%), and ‘other’ (10.96%) including being homeless as a habit, escaping from family, unable to front security deposit, and having just returned to Hong Kong and have no support system. Of all, causes related to the ‘unaffordability’ of the housing stock make up over 50% (51.72%). 

There has been no law to protect the rights of the homeless. Various government departments have used different tactics to monitor the homeless – yet these tactics serve more of a purpose to “evict” and persecute the homeless from their place of congregation rather than addressing and solving the issue (Society of Community Organization SoCO, 2010).


Housing Authority revealed that the waiting time to acquire public housing had increased by a full year in the past 12 months, with thousands of families now facing an average wait of just over four years and eight months. Almost 200,000 people were living in 88,000 subdivided flats in 2015, according to the Census and Statistics Department, and their rents rose by about 13 per cent between October 2014 and October 2015.

Although the street sleepers could apply for low-rental dormitories, the Social Welfare Department had stipulated that the "subsidized accommodation" would provide for a period of up to six months and that the "non-subsidized dormitory" maximum stay 1 to 3 months and would normally have restricted opening hours. 77.8% of people had said they could not find night work, whereas 54.7% of them returned to street immediately after leaving the dormitory. Mr. Wu, Director of SoCO, revealed. 

For 70-year-old Mr. Chu, due to family relocation to mainland in recent years, he travels back Hong Kong while there is temp job available, often in construction. When mentioned about how he became a recurrent homeless, “My family is in mainland. I only come back for temp job. I could stay in one of the dormitory provided, yet I would spend the whole night battling with wood lice. I couldn’t really get any sleep, and the condition is poor. So I choose staying on the street whenever I return.” he said. He also confessed impliedly that he did not want his friends and relatives to know his situation. 

Mr. Wu has proposed to re-introduce the Rent Control Ordinance, to abolish public housing quota and scoring system for non-elderly persons, to increase subsidized dormitory-like accommodation and to release restrictions on the opening hours of dormitories, to develop better homeless relief policies and so on.

Europe and the United States are in the "first home" concept to deal with the problem of homeless. The Government works with private owners, to provide street sleepers with longer-term accommodation services and continuous support, and to help them return into the community. 

The prerequisite for the successful implementation of the concept of "first home" is to have sufficient housing supply. It is not easy for the authorities to place street sleepers in the "first home" mode at the time of the current record of waiting time for public housing estates, with high property prices and high rents.

Social enterprise – Light Be, offered a low-rental private housing to low-income household with difficulties in housing, including single mom ("light room") and three or more families "Light house" program). The Hong Kong Polytechnic University assessed the program indicated that more than 60 families had moved out of the first home project, with an average of less than two years moving out rate before the three-year leasing term. More than half of them moved out through their friends and/or relatives’ help, and 19% were allocated with public housing. The study found that the early moving out rate is due to the improvement in environment, bringing the confidence to their future, and thus encouraging and motivating them to be self-reliant.  

Reframed above, many of the recurring street sleepers are in their middle-age. They have paid job in either full or part time. In another words, they have source of income and have ability to pay rent for a reasonably cosy place to sleep. Lighthouse could be the turning point to their lives.

Hong Kong Homeless Photos Photograph by Lei Jih Sheng