Virus puts Hong Kong’s ‘McRefugees’ back on streets

May May, 61, wears a face mask as a precautionary measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, as she crosses a road as she walks towards her rented storage space after receiving a free meal box given out by Gingko House restaurant from the basement of their Yau Ma Tei branch in Hong Kong on March 27,2020. May May has been a so called McRefugee for more than three years, meaning she has been sleeping in branches of the fast food restaurant due to being homeless. She spent her nights in the waterfront public area outside the Cultural Center in Tsim Sha Tsui since the fast food chain suspended dine-in services from 6pm for two weeks from March 26. May May has rented a mini storage space for her belongings but the basic welfare payment and disability allowance she receives from the government are not sufficient for renting a liveable space for her. - Gingko House is a social enterprise devoted to promoting elderly employment in catering services. It has been giving away free meal boxes for lunch and supper at one of its branches in Yau Ma Tei for more than two years. In the past half year, registered meal box recipients doubled to nearly 1,000, according to project manager and social worker Joyce Mak. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE/ 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 Covid-19 outbreak.

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. But in a bid to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the company recently ended all dine-in services in Hong Kong from 6pm for the next fortnight.

“I heard about the news on Tuesday afternoon and I knew it would be trouble for me, ” Leung says at an interview 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.”

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 Covid-19 pandemic, it is the poor who are the least prepared and the hardest hit.

Leung 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 (RM1,000) a month, he rents a tiny 3.7sq m 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 says. The restaurants offer him a place to grab a bite, clean up and catch up.

Leung says 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 adds.

The company says it is doing what it can to help with social distancing and wants to discourage dining-in during the busy evening hours. “We understand that different people may have different reasons to stay in our restaurants, ” a chain spokesperson says. “We only hope they can fight the epidemic along with McDonald’s.”

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.

“We have 400,000 people who live in spaces less than 100 square feet, ” says Jeff Rotmeyer from the charity ImpactHK. The NGO has seen a 20% rise in homelessness since the outbreak began in January, battering an economy already in recession after months of street protests.

“You are going to see thousands of people homeless this year, which is pretty dark, ” he says.

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, ” says Ng Wai-tung, a social worker with SCO.

Ng urges the government to open some of the temporary shelters it uses during typhoons to help accommodate the homeless during the Covid-19 crisis.

When his local McDonald’s ended its evening dine-in service, David (who doesn’t want his full name used) 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 fumes.

With no mobile phone, David, 60, says he had no idea his local McDonald’s would be closing. “I couldn’t prepare anything and I couldn’t find a place for the night, ” he says.

“Now I have become a real street sleeper.” – AFP

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