In life it’s easy to get swallowed up by one’s personal agenda, whether it’s family, work, health, power or vanity etc… the temptation is out there on every corner, and Hong Kong is oozing with it. However, while many view our city to be a shallow, superficial and brimming with greed, power, wealth and vanity, I have been fortunate enough to meet some incredibly self-less individuals.
Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting with givingbread.org again. (My Thursday visits are becoming a little bit of an addiction and the volunteers are truly inspirational: Focused, caring, fearless and compassionate…Raise the roof for Rita Wong, Charmaine Wong(Classifieds Donor) and Julia Tsao) This week we visited a homeless shelter in Wanchai. I have lived in Hong Kong most of my life and I never knew that just off the main street where I drive past everyday is a homeless shelter . We drove to Kennedy Road, jumped off, meandered our way down a few flights of stairs and voila, there we were:
The caretaker Mr X, clad in shorts and an old torn tee, greeted us at the door. He had just finished the daily cleanup of the entire dorm, and the sterile odors of bleach and disinfectant permeated every nook and cranny of the facility. It was cleaner than any adjacent restaurant or public bar and for this reason alone, Mr X was proud. The conditions of this shelter were slightly better than that of the caged homes, with a touch more square feet per person, and yet there was little or no privacy.
Mr X and his wife (have asked to remain anonymous) manage the facility which consists of two separate dormitories, one for women and one for men, with outdoor bath houses below the dorms, also separated by sex. Despite the minimal conditions, the couple runs a tight ship, where respect of rules and regulations is a must. Those that seek to stay at the shelter must:
- apply for a government permit;
- have no communicable diseases (with so many living in such close quarters, spread of disease is easy)
- be of sound mind;
- no drug addicts;
- no recently rehabilitated drug addicts that show withdrawal symptoms of itching, cold sweats etc.;
- no guns, knives or dangerous weapons;
- no illegal substances;
- no occupants with gambling habits;
and this is only a sample list!
There is no kitchen in the shelter and only a microwave is available for use to heat pre-cooked food and warm-up drinks. Donated items sit atop a small table in the corner, and Mr X is happily perplexed as another group came by the day before to drop off some food. (Generosity is everywhere :))
Meanwhile as we walked through the shelter, he recounted some of his more alarming tales. He recalled an incident where he was held at knife-point by a mentally ill “tenant” who had come off his medication. The “tenant” threatened the entire facility but after hours of talking and negotiating Mr X as able to calm the situation and keep everyone safe. Alas it was all in a day’s work!
I also noticed that there were children’s clothes hanging off some of the beds. Mr X explained that it was not unusual to have one or two children stay at the shelter with their parents, however they are required to share a bed with the parent/ mother.
In the photo below, the crocs belong to a young 3-year-old boy who sleeps in the bunk with his mother . Each morning they wake up , and they go about their morning routine. They change, take their toothpaste and toothbrush downstairs to wash up and then return to their bed, clean up their space, and then head out of the shelter by 9am at the latest. The shelter is closed until 5pm in the afternoon. The public bathhouse below also operates the same hours. Mr X explains that each case is given three months permission to stay, and during their stay, they are required to seek gainful employment on a daily basis.(I wonder about the plight of this mother. How is she going to find a job with a 3-year-old at her side? )
Also at the shelter in a different bunk, is a 12-year-old boy with his mother, who goes to school every morning and returns at night. His school may not be close to the shelter, and he probably needs to travel a fair distance each day. He would need money for public transportation as well as school lunch. (As I speculate about his daily routine, my heart aches for him, and I can’t help but wonder how his current living conditions are effecting his sense of self-worth, school work, or how he is able to adjust to being a teenager (the transition is hard enough). Moreover is he adjusting to his new life after the trauma of whatever it was, that brought him and his mother to this shelter in the first place? A million questions rifle through my mind.)
We are not able to meet him, but we see his worldly possessions: one pair of jeans and a shirt. There are no books, no toys, no light close to the bed for night-time reading. He has a pair of worn down slippers under the bed. There is a small mug with 2 toothbrushes and a crinkled tube of toothpaste that he shares with his mother.
There is a locker by their bed, but it is empty.
To see this shelter so close to home was a surprise, and even more so were the stories and the self-less dedication of Mr X and his wife.
While the givingbread will not solve all their problems at once, I pray that this gesture of hope will ease the worries of the 3-year-olds mother, and perhaps the 12-year -old will be able to take the bread to school as a snack.
Note to self, there are many more shelters to visit and next time also bring bread coupons or food coupons, and organise more groups to visit. Would anyone else like to join?