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Living with Homelessness in Hong Kong

Last Friday, I joined an entourage from the charity Sunshine Action, which my Dharma sister’s brother manages. Our objective was to pass out packed dinners, fruits, drinks, and blankets to designated groups of homeless people living in the Sham Shui Po district.

Across Hong Kong, these groups of homeless men live under flyovers, empty parks, or open markets that have closed for the night. Their makeshift beds are made from scavenged mattresses, cardboard, and broken household items, piled together, pressed and lined up against each other to give some semblance of order and homeliness to the maddening jumble of discarded, worn furniture.

Their eyes hide their individual stories, but they betray either a grim determination to survive hand-to-mouth each day, or a striking weariness with a city that, too often, treats the wealthy like saints and the poor like scum. Or those same eyes are simply shut because the men are sleeping or sick.

It is hard to know where they came from, or who they once were. Some of them may have been enterprising and courageous grafters. They might have been entrepreneurs who gambled everything on opening a factory or a shop. For all we know, they might have been rich once. Or they could just as easily have been born into poverty, into the cycle of abusive families that inflicts the wounds of past generations onto its present and future. Maybe they broke the law and were thrown in prison (one of the homeless claims that he was just let out). In any case, their lives are now joined together in their shared poverty and destitution.  

Some of them are quite polite, especially the men in smaller groups. Others are rude, if not outright aggressive. The larger the group of homeless sleeping under the same bridge, the more tension and uneasiness there was. Yet how could one feel affronted? These men have had life itself thrown back in their faces.  

I keep on talking about homeless men, because there were no women. One of the things that disturbed me most was the fact that all these homeless people were men, be they young, middle-aged or old. I don’t believe we are practicing genuine Buddhist principles if we don’t have similar shelters for homeless men or boys who suffer domestic violence. Buddhism places paramount value in the sentient being, and cannot be constrained by ridiculous notions like “only women suffer from domestic violence”. When we start believing the mad idea men can’t actually suffer from domestic violence – and the Government and charities enforce this idea as policy! – Is it surprising that almost all homeless people are men?

Hong Kong, a onetime British colony, will surpass its mother city London and New York as the world’s financial centre in 2016. These are the three financial hubs of our modern, futuristic world, but Hong Kong is the odd one out for many reasons. Obviously, it is a politically and culturally different city, but Hong Kong’s lack of cultural criticism is probably more acute, our social problems made more severe by vapid mass marketing, rampant materialism, and obsession with image. 

There’s one thing that so many of us fear more than poverty and death, and that is feeling morally uncomfortable with ourselves.

Hong Kong is a city of glitz and glamour, but the prosperity exists side-by-side with gut-wrenching poverty.
Homeless people and those who live in cages and coffin homes are consigned to similar fates of destitution and rejection by society.
Flyover in Tin Hau district. At night, many of these flyovers are frequented by the homeless

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