19 May 2019
The number of homeless people who stayed overnight at McDonald's outlets has surged 5.7 times over the past five years. Photos: AFP
The number of homeless people who stayed overnight at McDonald's outlets has surged 5.7 times over the past five years. Photos: AFP

The N-nothing sleepers at McDonald’s

How bad is the housing crisis in Hong Kong?

A non-governmental organization has devised a method to gauge the extent of the problem. Call it the McDonald’s Housing Crisis Index if you will.

One chilly night in December last year, the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) fielded social workers to the 73 round-the-clock outlets of McDonald’s in the city to count the number of people who stayed there beyond the period normally spent to consume their orders of burgers and French fries from midnight to 4 a.m. – basically, those who slept there overnight.

SoCO has been doing this survey for several years now, and it found that the number of homeless people who stayed overnight at the Golden Arches outlets surged to 384 last year, up 5.7 times from 57 four years ago.

Of these “overnight customers”, 225, or 58.6 percent, were found in McDonald’s restaurants in West Kowloon, while 91, or 23.7 percent, were from Hong Kong Island.

The findings came on the heels of Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s budget speech last Wednesday, in which he disclosed a record surplus of HK$138 billion for the year.

His speech was roundly slammed by various groups, including pro-establishment lawmakers, for various reasons. The biggest criticism, however, is that Chan ignored the “N-nothing” class, a stratum of society whose income prevents them from availing themselves of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme but is not big enough to afford a small flat of their own. No social welfare, no public housing for them.

In fact, N-nothing is the new term for poverty in the city.

Twenty years after its return to Chinese rule, Hong Kong has seen huge economic improvements, and such progress is reflected in the surging stock market and skyrocketing housing prices.

The housing shortage, in turn, only widened the disparity between the rich and the poor. Today there is virtually no flat in the city that is below HK$10,000 per square foot. Worse still, an average family will need to save their entire income for almost 20 years before they can buy their own home at current prices, according to Demographia, and even if they are finally able to, they can only afford a tiny 130-square-foot unit.

That basically kills young people’s dream of buying their own flat – and if they qualify for public housing, they will have to wait more than eight years.

So that explains why a growing number of people, including those from the N-nothing income bracket, have no choice but to stay at McDonald’s, which unlike some government-run organizations, is quite considerate of their plight and treat them with dignity – as long as they could afford a cheap hamburger.

McDonald’s probably deserves some recognition for hosting hundreds of these N-nothing citizens and saving them from warm and chilly nights.

Although it could be said that some of these overnight sleepers choose to stay at McDonald’s for reasons other than having no other place to sleep in, that’s no excuse for the government not to try to reach out and help these people. 

What is not good for the N-nothing class is not good for Hong Kong.

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EJ Insight writer

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