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Bitter home truths in city blights
By Richard Macauley
Nov 5 2010 8:51
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Provided to China Daily
Maradona at his old bed in the Sham Shui Po hostel.

"In the morning I usually go for a run," says Maradona. "It's my attitude that I shouldn't be lazy and besides, I need to take care of my body. In the afternoon I'll usually go to the Labour Department to look for a job, or come to volunteer here."

Maradona is 49 years old and is working his way out of his second period of homelessness. Sitting in the Sham Shui Po offices of the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), he details the daily routine he finds himself in.

"I'll read the paper. If I'm not looking for work I'll go to a football court to relax, and perhaps sleep. Others go to sleep in libraries but someone once told me that sleeping in libraries is an insult to books, so I prefer to rest on football courts."

Maradona has been homeless for two and a half months. He is lucky to have at least found some shelter since moving into a cubicle in Kowloon but it is far from what most would call a home, and he still has a long way to go before he can re-establish himself in mainstream society.

Government figures show that the number of homeless people in Hong Kong rose during the financial crisis, stretching available resources.

But there is another worrying trend among those who sleep on the streets. This challenges the popular perception that those who have to sleep outdoors are simply unfortunate enough to have lost their job.

More than a third (38 percent) of those without homes are in fact employed and earning a salary, SoCO says. The problem is that with wages so low, this group cannot even afford to rent a cubicle in Kowloon. Even more (50 percent) are experiencing homelessness for the second time or more.

Typically, those who become homeless for a second time are in this situation just four years after establishing themselves in a stable job and home. Indeed, after becoming homeless for the first time, Maradona was in work for just five years before finding himself on the streets again.

A job did little to prevent Maradona from becoming homeless for a second time and it shows that underemployment is as big a threat to the stability of the lives of people in Hong Kong as unemployment itself. "I worked as a laborer in construction," explains Maradona. "In that job there is no such thing as full-time work, just casual hours, and every month I was underemployed."

And so he has come to rely on the services created by charities for the homeless in Hong Kong. Shelter, food and clothing are all prepared in various forms for those without a place to live in but in addition to these there are outreach services which offer washing, hair cuts, counselling and employment guidance. These are provided by the Integrated Services Team for Street Sleepers, and are a combination of government funding and NGO activity.

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