Hong Kong, China – In an underpass in the central Hong Kong district of Happy Valley, Michael sits at a table, sorting leftover food from takeaway containers he finds in trash bins.
The smell of rotting food fills the air as he opens each container. Whatever he considers safe to eat will be his next meal.
Behind him are all the possessions he owns: a mattress, a suitcase, and an office desk and chair. These are things other people threw away — items that are now precious to him.
He has lived in the pedestrian tunnel for four years.
“There are many mosquitoes and bedbugs. You can see there are so many. And I’m getting fungal infections,” Michael, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera.
“I used to live on the other side of Hong Kong but I came here, after my belongings were taken.”
In Tai Kok Tsui, ImpactHK, a charity which supports people experiencing homelessness, welcomes hundreds of people into one of its community centers, offering them fresh clothes, hot meals, and a chance to connect with social workers.
“Every night on the streets is an emergency. This is a very wealthy city — but one in five at this moment are experiencing food insecurity,” ImpactHK founder Jeffrey Rotmeyer told Al Jazeera.
“These are scary times. We’ve seen the percentage of females on the street double [since the pandemic], and we’ve seen about a 25 percent increase overall. And we are seeing homeless communities pop up in new areas.”
A report by Oxfam in 2022 found the pandemic worsened Hong Kong’s wealth gap, with the richest residents making almost 50 times as much as the poorest in the first quarter of 2022.
Rotmeyer’s organization has helped almost 500 people off the streets and into shelters — but he says the scale of the homelessness problem in the city goes beyond what nongovernmental organizations can do.
“Over 90 percent of these people have no emergency contact, they have no friend or family member in their life. That isolation plays a huge role in their step towards becoming homeless, so when we look for a solution, we know that a room is not enough,” Rotmeyer said.
“Many of these individuals grew up not knowing a mother or father. We see people outside on the street with various mental health issues — schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, and even Alzheimer’s. Our healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with this.”
According to the Social Welfare Department, there were more than 1,500 people registered as “street sleepers” from 2021-22.
In a statement, the Social Welfare Department told Al Jazeera that it has enhanced its services for people experiencing homelessness since 2021-22 and will “continue to keep in view the welfare service needs of street sleepers”.
“Whether street sleepers will accept the services or referrals depends on their willingness and motivation for receiving services. The social workers … will render necessary assistance to street sleepers if they are willing to accept the services,” the statement said.
The department said people experiencing homelessness have various reasons for sleeping on the street, including being unable to find affordable housing due to unemployment, having family problems, being recently discharged from prison or drug addiction treatment centers, or other personal reasons.
‘I will be very happy if I can help them’
Watching with alarm as the number of homeless in Hong Kong grows is 65-year-old Chu Kin Lik, who goes by the nickname Ah Lik.
He knows first hand what it is like to try to sleep outside during Hong Kong’s chilly winter nights and hot summer days.
He spent most of his adult life on the streets, including more than 10 years living in an underpass.
“I began my homelessness when I was a teenager, and I spent my youth in prison, and then the pedestrian tunnel,” he said.
“I always had my things stolen, and there were also fights. I met some people who would treat me to dinner, if I participated in a fight.”
Three years ago, he met the ImpactHK team while they were distributing social aid. He joined their team as a full-time assistant shortly afterwards.
“I became more cheerful after helping other people experiencing homelessness. I met many new people. Now I have a place to live, I have enough food and a job. I also have a dog, whom I treat like my daughter. I’m happy and satisfied,” he said.
“I will be very happy if I can help more people. I am happy if they are happy.”