Virus puts Hong Kong's 'McRefugees' back on streets
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Hong Kong (AFP)
Virtually blind and penniless, Leung Ping-kuen usually spends his nights dozing in one of Hong Kong's many 24-hour McDonald's but now finds himself back on the streets because of the coronavirus.
The 37-year-old is one of the city's so-called "McRefugees", a small community of homeless and rough sleepers who use the fast food chain as a shelter.
McDonald's has long turned a blind eye to those sleeping overnight in their restaurants, a more common sight in the summer months when it is sweltering outside.
But in a bid to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the company recently ended all dine-in services in Hong Kong from 6 pm for the next fortnight.
"I heard about the news on Tuesday afternoon and I knew it would be trouble for me," Leung told AFP in Sham Shui Po, one of the international business hub's poorest districts.
"They also have a business to care about, so I understand it's a tough decision for them."
- Entrenched inequality -
Despite its phenomenal economic rise, Hong Kong has long been a poster child for inequality.
It boasts one of the highest concentrations of billionaires in the world.
But at the other end of the spectrum, life is punishing in a densely packed metropolis with a desperate housing shortage, eye-watering rents and a limited welfare state.
And like many other places dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, it is the poor who are the least prepared and the hardest hit.
Leung said he lost his job in a logistics company four years ago after cataracts made him blind.
He technically has a home, if you can call it that.
For HK$1,900 a month (US$245), he rents a tiny 40 square-foot (3.7 square-metre) cubicle under a stairway with no window, no independent flushable toilet and no proper lock on his door.
"My place does not have a tap so I have to come down here for water to take my medicine," he told AFP.
The restaurants offer him a place to grab a bite, clean up and catch up.
Leung said he would rather spend the next few weeks on the streets than return to his stuffy dwelling, and hopes McDonald's will soon open its doors again.
"McDonald's has been a rather safe place for me," he added.
The company said it was doing what it could to help with social distancing and wanted to discourage dining-in during the busy evening hours.
"We understand that different people may have different reasons to stay in our restaurants," the chain told AFP. "We only hope they can fight the epidemic along with McDonald's."
- Rough times -
Hong Kong had nearly 1,300 registered homeless people at the end of 2018, double the previous tally in 2011, according to official figures.
But experts say the real figure is likely much higher with people flitting in and out of homelessness and many more living in substandard accommodation such as the city's notorious "cage homes".
"We have 400,000 people who live in spaces less than 100 square feet," Jeff Rotmeyer, from the charity ImpactHK, told AFP.
ImpactHK has seen a 20 percent rise in homelessness since the outbreak began in January, battering an economy already in recession after months of pro-democracy protests.
"You are going to see thousands of people on the streets this year, which is pretty dark," he said.
Many say McDonald's inadvertently provides an invaluable, if imperfect, service.
A partial count conducted in 2018 by the Society for Community Organisation (SCO) found 448 people who regularly slept in McDonald's restaurants.
"It's not easy for us to apply for places in government-funded or NGO-run temporary dormitories, they are always quite full," said Ng Wai-tung, a social worker with SCO.
Ng urged the government to open some of the temporary shelters it uses during typhoons to help accommodate the homeless during the coronavirus crisis.
When his local McDonald's ended its evening dine-in service, Cheung spent the night in a nearby park despite a previous painful experience of being beaten and robbed there.
"Society and the government will not take care of people like me," the 58-year-old former truck driver fumed, asking only to use his surname.
"I couldn't prepare anything and I couldn't find a place for the night," he said, giving just his first name.
"Now I have become a real street sleeper."
© 2020 AFP