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Street sleepers – homeless or houseless?

In this post, Chatteris’ own Anna Finlay examines why it’s time to reevaluate how we define homelessness.

Taking a brief escape from the busy streets of Prince Edward, an unplanned detour on a recent journey caused me to confront my own understanding of ‘the homeless’, and I suggest you do too.

The homeless situation in Hong Kong

A busy street near Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Hong Kong | Image by Chatteris

Hong Kong is known for having one of the largest wealth disparities in the world, something which is very evident when comparing a district such as Sham Shui Po to the bright lights of Central harbour front. Statistics shared by Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department in June in 2020 showed that Hong Kong had a total of 1,432 registered street sleepers in the year 2019 -20, with this number rising to above 1,500 since the start of the pandemic.

While there are no specific laws relating to sleeping on the streets in Hong Kong, there have been various attempts to make potentially habitable areas quite the opposite – water sprinklers adapted to spray a skin irritating solution onto people, or benches installed with unnecessary divides to prevent sleeping. With the ongoing pandemic hitting its fifth wave in Hong Kong, it is likely that the number of rough sleepers will increase, as people face difficult financial or living situations. Now more than ever, negative attitudes towards people without housing need to be confronted.

A home without a house?

I decided to turn left and walk through a local park instead of taking the route Google Maps had suggested as the quickest way home. Wandering through, I couldn’t ignore the various pieces of furniture arranged into what could be accurately described as open-air bedrooms. One man lay on top of a mattress while looking at his smartphone, another rearranged his shoes into a neat row beside his personal assembly of belongings. It was evident that this wasn’t a fleeting arrangement, but rather a carefully considered accumulation of items.

Although I was aware of the fact that these people would often be thought of as ‘homeless’, this term seemed blatantly inaccurate. How can an individual be deemed as homeless based purely on the fact they do not sleep and eat within a domestic building? It is well-established that the concept of ‘home’ references much more than a roof over your head. Rather, the meaning of ‘home’ can be drawn from several different aspects of the human experience. A sense of home can be felt without residing in a house (or apartment, as is much more common in Hong Kong).

Temple Street is famous for its bustling night market, but the surrounding parks are a resting place for many of Kowloon’s street sleepers | Image by Anna Finlay

Home as a fluid concept

The word ‘homeless’ (noun) is simply defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘people who do not have a home, usually because they are poor’. Of course, this is an extremely oversimplified understanding of the term itself, as well as the people encompassed within it.

Despite often being associated with a sense of security and stability, previous research has suggested that the concept of home can be understood outside of a physical dwelling or geographical location. ‘Home’ is better understood as a fluid concept, experienced differently by individuals. Perhaps being ‘homeless’ should be self-defined by people experiencing it rather than society’s generalised view that overlooks all the real intricacies of individual situations and experiences.

It seems necessary for there to be a new sensitivity towards ‘homelessness’, not only the literal phrasing but also the people experiencing it. If you type ‘Hong Kong homeless’ into the Google search bar a Scandinavian furniture store will be the first thing to pop up. This perhaps provides a small insight into how the issue is swept under the carpet within Hong Kong’s society. Now more than ever, as Hong Kong pledges to ‘fight the virus together’ people experiencing these challenging living circumstances can’t be left behind. Tangible change can start when society’s ingrained thoughts around homelessness are challenged. Start the process, confront your own beliefs. People without a house deserve better.

Take a look at ImpactHK’s website for more information about homelessness in Hong Kong, including individuals’ stories and ways to help. 

At Chatteris, our programmes support a range of disadvantaged groups. If you’re interested in giving back to the Hong Kong community, join us as a Chatteris Tutor.

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