Hong Kong homeless refugee: 'I'd rather catch Covid-19 and rest in hospital than sleep on streets'

McDonald’s restaurants have been a refuge for many of the city’s homeless.
South China Morning Post

Catching Covid-19 and sleeping in hospital is preferable to fighting for a space in a Hong Kong park, says homeless man Tony, whose favoured spot, an all-night McDonald's branch, will no longer be an option after the fast-food giant adjusted its operations to help tackle the surge in coronavirus cases.

The 53-year-old divorcee is one of about 400 "McRefugees" - people spending the night in one of the chain's 24-hour branches - who will now have to find somewhere else to sleep after McDonald's Hong Kong announced it would suspend its dine-in services from 6pm to 4am at all of its 244 outlets from Wednesday for two weeks.

"Where can we go? Are we really going to start sleeping on the streets when the parks get too crowded? I'd rather catch the virus and get some proper rest in hospital," said Tony, who found out about McDonald's new policy as he passed by an advertising screen showing the news.

"Then I would have immunity from the virus and won't have to worry. I'm disappointed and just living day by day, my will to live is very low right now."

The city recorded 30 more confirmed coronavirus infections on Tuesday, with the total tally rising to 386. McDonald's explained that its decision to adjust operations was based on health risks.

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"As a part of Hong Kong society, McDonald's values the health of our employees and citizens. By adjusting our operating model and only allowing delivery, we hope to reduce social contact to protect both employees and residents," chief executive Randy Lai said.

"We understand different people may stay in the restaurants for different reasons, but we hope they can co-operate with McDonald's and help to prevent the spread of the virus."

For Tony, who has frequented McDonald's outlets across Hong Kong Island for eight years since his divorce, the new policy means finding a park or pedestrian underpass to sleep in.

"At least in a park, there are fewer people, the lights are dimmer and I won't get chased away. It's OK for now, it's not too warm or too cold," he said.

The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), a human rights advocacy group, said the fast-food chain's move could force many McRefugees into parks or under bridges and urged the government to provide more help to them amid the coronavirus pandemic.

SoCO community organiser Ng Wai-tung said the group's research in 2018 found that there were 448 McRefugees across 109 24-hour McDonald's outlets.

"McDonald's outlets provide a safe environment as there are staff around and [McRefugees] don't have to worry about having their belongings stolen. There're also toilets there," Ng said.

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He accused the government of not providing enough space and support for McRefugees, saying there were as many as 1,270 homeless people in the city in 2018, but the number of hostel places was only in the hundreds.

"The responsibility [to help McRefugees] should lie with the government, not McDonald's," Ng said.

He urged the government to provide temporary shelter for them.

Leung Hip-kuen passes the time at a 24-hour outlet in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong's poorest districts, most nights because of poor hygiene and ventilation in his cage-like 100 sq ft subdivided flat.

"It feels really cramped and uncomfortable staying in the flat for the night," Leung, 37, said. "I usually just stay there for a few hours every day."

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Leung, whose severe eyesight loss cost him his job about two years ago, said he had no choice but to visit McDonald's outlets.

He usually spent more than 12 hours overnight at the Sham Shui Po branch listening to the radio or hanging out with other McRefugees, and returned home in the morning for a quick nap.

"I usually don't sleep in McDonald's… because if I did, some staff might ask [me to leave]," he said.

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Leung said he would now have to spend his nights in a park or his flat - one of the worst options. He said he could not listen to his radio at home, so had no way to know the time.

Poor ventilation in close quarters also increased the health risks, he said. "Who knows if my neighbour is infected? I'm really worried."

Sitting in a Mong Kok branch, 63-year-old Ricky Wong was also unhappy about McDonald's move.

He occasionally spent half the night in the firm's outlets to keep his electricity bills low and avoid staying alone at home.

"If staff ask me to leave, I can only leave," Wong said. "I have a heart problem, if I stay alone at home, if anything happens to me, probably no one will know."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.