What should we do about our 'McRefugees'?

March 13, 2018 10:26
According to a study, Hong Kong has seen a significant jump in the number of so-called McRefugees over the past four-and-a-half years. Photo: Reuters

In Hong Kong, there are many ways to refer to homeless people. The government would often call them "street sleepers", while many citizens would refer to them as "drifters" or "vagrants".

As far as I am concerned, I would prefer to address them as "street buddies" like welfare concern groups in Taiwan do.

In Japan, since around 2007, homeless people in big cities had been given a new name: "McRefugees", which refer to homeless people who spend their nights regularly in 24-hour McDonald's restaurants, or other 24-hour service outlets such as fast-food stores, cybercafés, convenience stores or even public toilets.

Such McRefugees are a growing phenomenon even in Hong Kong. 

According a recent study published by the Society for Community Organization (SCO), a human rights advocacy group in Hong Kong, the number of "McRefugees" in the city has soared 5.7-fold over the past four-and-a-half years and hit 384.

Researchers of the SCO study came up with this number after visiting 73 round-the-clock McDonald’s outlets in the city on the early morning of December 28, 2017.

The study has found that nearly 60 percent of the so-called McRefugees have never applied for beds in homeless shelters, not least because many of these shelters are enforcing curfews, which could have put off the working homeless who either always get off work very late or have to constantly work night shifts.

Besides, most homeless shelters would only allow occupants to stay for 6 months at the maximum, which explains why many homeless people would rather retreat to other options.

Among the 384 McRefugees in Hong Kong identified by the SOC, 225 of them were found in Kowloon West, including Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po and Kowloon City, because, according to them, these districts were easier to find jobs.

Of all the McRefugees in the city, 89 percent are males and 11 percent females, with their median age standing at 52.9 years. On average, these homeless people have been sleeping rough for 23.4 months, up from 18 months in 2015.

And contrary to public belief, many of these McRefugees are actually fairly educated, with nearly 40 percent of them having obtained senior high, undergraduate and even postgraduate qualifications.

Among the 36 McRefugees who were willing to tell researchers their occupations, 55.5 percent were working in the catering industry, whereas 25 percent were cleaners, with their median monthly salary at HK$9,600.

As to the reason why they were retreating to 24-hour McDonald’s during the night, 36.5 percent said that they had to do so because they just couldn't afford to rent a place, and 26 percent said they were unemployed.

As far as female McRefugees are concerned, they said they felt "safer" staying in 24-hour fast-food restaurants for the night.

The SCO study didn’t come up with any shocking discovery about homelessness in the city, but at least it may have drawn some public attention to the "McRefugee phenomenon" in Hong Kong.

It is said that in management science, there is something known as the "Wooden Bucket Theory" or the "Cannikin Law", which suggests the idea that a bucket’s capacity of carrying water is determined by its shortest stave rather than the longest.

By the same theory, an organization's strength and competitiveness are determined not by its top-of-the-pyramid elites, but by its most average and mediocre members.

If anything, the Wooden Bucket Theory simply reminds us that in order to enhance the capacity of the bucket, we must focus on improving its "shortest stave".

And apparently, the McRefugees are the "shortest stave" of our society.

For a place like ours which boasts of being a civilized, prosperous and stable "Asia's World City”, the rapidly growing number of McRefugees is undoubtedly a huge shame and poses a big challenge.

Worse still, the society seems to be split over what should or should not be done about these McRefugees, with conservatives and progressives arguing endlessly over whether to help them or not and how.

In my opinion, the true essence of "social prosperity and stability" is not about material wealth, but rather protecting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society from hunger and harm.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 9

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member