26 October 2016
While selling The Big Issue on the street in Bristol, Jack Richardson (left), a homeless man, met the woman who would later become his fiancee. Homeless people (right) stay overnight in McDonald's in Hong Kong. Photos: SWNS, Suraj Katra
While selling The Big Issue on the street in Bristol, Jack Richardson (left), a homeless man, met the woman who would later become his fiancee. Homeless people (right) stay overnight in McDonald's in Hong Kong. Photos: SWNS, Suraj Katra

How the homeless in Hong Kong and Britain can best be helped

The death of an elderly woman, unnoticed by staff or customers, in a McDonald’s 24-hour restaurant in October put the spotlight on “McRefugees” in Hong Kong.

Months before this incident, Hong Kong-based Indian photographer Suraj Katra had captured the disheartening landscape of homeless people taking shelter overnight in McDonald’s outlets in the city.

His poignant photos appeared in many media outlets, as far afield as Britain’s Daily Mail.

In Hong Kong and Britain, both known for high housing prices and living costs, the numbers of the homeless, or “rough sleepers”, as the British call them, are rising.

Based on the number of rough sleepers from local authorities, Britain’s Department for Communities and Local Government estimated there were more than 2,700 homeless people in England in autumn last year, a jump of 55 per cent from 2010.

London alone accounted for 27 percent of the total number of rough sleepers in England.

However, charities for the homeless, such as Crisis and Homeless Link, believe that the official number is just the tip of the iceberg.

More than 112,000 people in England made a homeless application for welfare support last year.

In particular, young people are vulnerable to becoming homeless amid the British government’s welfare cuts, and their applications for welfare have a very low chance of acceptance.

In Hong Kong, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimation (HOPE HK), a team of volunteers from local universities and community organizations, provided a street count of at least 1,414 homeless people across the city in 2013.

They include 57 “McRefugees”.

HOPE HK identified a lack of affordable housing as a major reason for homelessness.

Besides that, research conducted in Britain and Hong Kong found various factors linked to homelessness.

They include physical and mental health problems, alcohol abuse, relationship breakdown, unemployment and experience of violent abuse.

Fortunately, both Britain and Hong Kong are not lacking in kind-hearted people prepared to offer a helping hand to the homeless.

Recently, coats and scarves have been wrapped around lampposts on some British streets, as people try to help the homeless keep from freezing during winter.

In Hong Kong, numerous charities, volunteer groups and individuals distribute food at homeless hot spots.

One of them, “Ming Gor”, the owner of a roast meat restaurant in Sham Shui Po, gives out lunchboxes to the homeless every week.

Yet, apart from fulfilling their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, a long-term solution to the problem of homelessness can only come about if homeless people can be helped to transform their lives.

The love story of Jack Richardson, a homeless man in Bristol, was covered by several British newspapers and online news websites a few days ago.

Jack, 37, became homeless five years ago and now works seven days a week selling The Big Issue, a weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine sold by homeless and unemployed people.

Each issue includes interviews of homeless people from different parts of Britain.

Vendors buy copies for £1.25 (US$1.87) each and sell them for £2.50. They are easily spotted in their eye-catching Big Issue uniforms.

Jack recalled the struggle of being homeless.

“I had considered ending my own life,” he said.

“I couldn’t see any way out of the situation, and it just seemed to keep getting harder.”

He first met Toni Robinson about two years ago, when he asked her for cash as she passed him.

She apologized, saying she had none.

Jack ended up giving Toni 50p for her electricity meter so she would not have to spend Christmas in the dark.

Since then, Toni often walked passed Jack’s regular Big Issue pitch in central Bristol, and they became close friends.

When the place where Jack was squatting was boarded up last Christmas, Toni offered to share her home with him.

The pair fell for each other, and now they are preparing to tie the knot.

Jack is studying for a degree in psychology and sociology with the money he makes from selling The Big Issue.

He aims to help people get off the street once he graduates.

We can say Jack is just another successful example of The Big Issue fulfilling its aim of helping the homeless and unemployed help themselves.

But if you know Jack, you will soon realise that Jack’s attitude toward his job contributed to the change in his life.

When I lived in Bristol, I walked past Jack almost every day.

No matter the weather, he’s in high spirits.

He sells the magazine by using little rhymes and poems that get people smiling.

Ditties like: “When the sky is bright and blue and the weather is warm and sunny, the mighty Big Issue is honest and true and also great value for money.”

He also enthusiastically engages in conversations with passersby from single moms to celebrities and has built up a relationship with the shops and restaurants around him.

The Big Issue has given Jack a job by which he can help himself.

The job has helped him reconnect with the community and regained his hope for the future.

At the same time, it provides opportunities for people in the community to express their kindness and support to the homeless.

Wherever we are, every homeless person should have an opportunity to make changes in his or her life — and not have to rely only on receiving assistance from welfare agencies or charities.

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EJ Insight contributor

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