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Church people rally to help Hong Kong's 'McRefugees'

Homeless number has increased by an estimated 20 percent since the coronavirus outbreak began in January

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

Updated: March 31, 2020 04:34 AM GMT
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Church people rally to help Hong Kong's 'McRefugees'

Oblate Father John Wotherspoon seen (standing) with McRefugees at one of the Thursday Dinners that his charity group MercyHK hosts for Refugees in the city in this 2018 picture. (UCA News file picture)

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Church people are seeking ways to house hundreds who are sleeping on the streets of Hong Kong after a fast food chain decided to close its 24-hour restaurants as part of coronavirus containment.

The move came after the administration refused to find shelter for the "McRefugees" or "McSleepers," so nicknamed because they spent nights in the 24-hour McDonald's outlets in several Hong Kong districts.

However, the McRefugees lost their shelter when the multinational chain decided to close all its outlets at 6pm from March 25 as a measure against spreading coronavirus.

"They have no place to sleep now. I prefer to find a safe place for them," said Oblate Father John Wotherspoon, who has been helping them for the past four years.

A 2018 survey reported that Hong Kong had 448 homeless people spending nights in fast food restaurants. Father Wotherspoon said most are on the streets now as the government has ignored appeals to shelter them.

ImpactHK, a voluntary agency working among the homeless in Hong Kong, estimated a 20 percent increase among the city’s homeless people since the coronavirus outbreak began in January.

The outbreak, economists say, has battered an economy already reeling under recession because of pro-democracy protests that began in June 2019. Most homeless are people who cannot afford to rent a place in one of Asia's most expensive cities.

The Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Diocese appealed to the administration on March 26 to open at least temporary shelters for those affected.

Project officer Oscar Lai Man-lok told UCA News that he wrote to five government departments including the Home Affairs Bureau and Social Welfare Department, but the response was negative.

The Home Affairs Department said it can open temporary shelters only during major natural calamities or fires. Moreover, it said it would suspend the opening of any temporary shelters in order to reduce the risk of a large-scale outbreak of Covid-19.

The Labour Department promised to follow up on the matter without specifying any action.

"They don't have a policy that defines which department is responsible for McRefugees. The government is insensitive to them and continues to pass the buck around departments," Lai said.

Lai said he had approached several people to find shelter for the homeless. Some people are renting cheap hotel rooms for a few days but "that's only a temporary arrangement."

Father Wotherspoon said some McRefugees are old and weak and could easily contract the coronavirus if exposed to the streets without proper shelter and hygiene.

He said he knows some 70 McRefugees and one is an 85-year-old woman. "She spends nights under an overpass in the city. I'm most worried about her situation," the Australian missionary said.

He said fast food restaurants were not the safest place to sleep as visitors from affected countries visit them. The homeless could be infected if they came into contact with them. "But it was safer than the streets," the priest said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had promised to walk with the people. If she meant it, she should understand the issue of McRefugees and deal with it in a "more humane manner," Lai said.

Lai said the government has funds to take care of such people but does not have clarity of policy. It is the government's responsibility, he said.

However, some parishes, groups or individuals have rented hostels or opened up their own houses to provide temporary accommodation for McRefugees.

"Behind the prosperity of our society, there are still many people sleeping on the streets," said Lai, who urged the community to wake up to the plight of the homeless and help them live with human dignity.

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