At a time when most people are staying home to stay safe, some of Hong Kong’s poorest face a painful dilemma: Is it safer to sleep at home or on the street?
Every night, Guo Yongfeng goes to bed in his cubicle room that’s just big enough for him to lie down. His belongings hang above him on hooks.
He is one of 18 residents sharing a 485-square-foot apartment in Hong Kong, where rents are some of the highest in the world. Each cubicle has a sliding door, and people are stacked on top of each other in spaces resembling cupboards.
The entire flat has just one window, and social distancing is practically impossible.
“I feel unsafe since we’re 18 people living together,” says the 66-year-old construction worker, who pays about $260 a month in rent. “They have different jobs. They go out every day, and you do not know who they’ve been with.”
Guo is one of about 210,000 people in the city who live in subdivided flats. Some of the rooms are so small that they’re known as cages or coffins.
Doctors say the crowded and poor living conditions mean residents of these homes are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. In Hong Kong, there have been 1,036 cases as of Friday, with four related deaths.
The living conditions are so bad that Guo, who is originally from Harbin in northeastern China, even relished his two weeks in a government quarantine center after he returned to the city from mainland China in February.
“My place is just stacked-up cages.”
“[Every person] had a single bed there,” he says. “It’s in quite good condition, better than where I live now. My place is just stacked-up cages, but [at the quarantine center] at least we get a room.”
Surviving the coronavirus in a box
In 2018, researchers from the University of Hong Kong found that some buildings with subdivided flats housed up to six times the number of people they were designed for, and that such premises were at higher risk of outbreaks of fire and infectious diseases.
People who live in subdivided units need proper ventilation and for surfaces to be cleaned regularly, according to medical professionals.
“In the presence of poor ventilation, the concentration of the virus will be a lot higher, so more people can be infected,” says David Hui, a medical professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
However, he points out that there have been no infections in the city related to subdivided units so far.
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Mrs. Lai, who wished to remain anonymous, shares an 800-square-foot apartment with nine other households in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Hong Kong. She says her two children have gone outside only twice since the end of January, when schools were closed.
Lai is concerned that living in proximity to other people will increase her family’s risk of infection, so she doesn’t want her children—a 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter—to walk past the other units when leaving the flat.
“I know they feel bored and angry,” the 52-year-old mother says. “We don’t have a TV, so they spend a long time reading. My son keeps asking when he can go back to school and see his classmates.”
Neon Yiu, a member of the nonprofit Liber Research Community, says the Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted how building conditions affect the poorest households in the city, who are living and quarantining themselves in subdivided units.
A record 1.38 million residents were below the poverty line in 2018 on incomes as low as $500 a month, according to government data.
“I think now is a time to rethink Hong Kong’s housing policy to focus more on improving the housing conditions of the existing stock,” Yiu says.
Is it safer to sleep on the street?
For some, sleeping outside is preferable to returning to their cramped homes during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Peter Cheung, who works part-time as a street cleaner, spends his nights on a cardboard box in a tunnel around the downtown area of Hong Kong.
He pays rent on an apartment in Tin Shui Wai, near the border with mainland China, but says he’s chosen to sleep outdoors.
“I’m afraid as the coronavirus spreads, it might jump from one housing block to another,” says the 66-year-old. “It’s safer here. Even in the tunnel, there is wind coming from above. There’s some ventilation.”
There are about 1,100 people in Hong Kong sleeping outside, according to government figures, but Ng Wai-tung, an organizer at the Society for Community Organization, believes the number could be around 2,000—and climbing as more people have lost their jobs over the past two months.
“Some believe living in a cubicle is worse than being homeless.”
“They face expensive rents that they cannot afford, in cubicles with no windows or air-conditioning,” Ng says. “Some believe living in a cubicle is worse than being homeless. This is a very sad situation.”
The latest figures from the city show that the unemployment rate increased to 3.7%—or 11,800—between December 2019 and February 2020, the highest in more than nine years, bringing the total number of unemployed people to 134,100.
Hong Kong’s service industry has been hit especially hard, with tourism taking a hit. Businesses have let go of part-timers, and many newly unemployed are finding themselves on the streets, unable to afford rent.
Frontline social workers believe the trend will continue.
Ng at the Society for Community Organization says in the past two months, more than 55 people contacted his organization’s homeless outreach team to ask for housing and financial help, with more also applying for welfare for the first time.
“Some of the street sleepers in Hong Kong have part-time jobs,” Ng says, “but in the past two months, this has changed.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.