Text by : So Mei Chi | Translated by : Chen Zhijun
For six years in a row, Hong Kong housing was rated by an American consultancy firm to be the world’s most unaffordable. In this city of limited liveable space, a person can lose their home for many unforeseen reasons: loss of job, an illness, or any of the many family problems commonly found in a densely populated city.
To help single women and families who have lost their home, or who are in danger of losing it, the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association has set up a halfway house in Yau Ma Tei that gives them temporary shelter, to help them find their feet and begin anew to live life with fresh hopes.
Ah Hung (not her real name) had endured living with her controlling husband for more than 20 years. What stopped her from leaving him was largely her inability to afford a place of her own.
Ah Hung: I was afraid I would end up like him
“He suffers from bipolar disorder, and often got drunk and lost his temper. Our home was like a battlefield, and I was always on my guard in case he did something.” Among the things he did were: playing with fire; breaking household appliances and furniture; throwing an electric fan out of the window; pouring water into the rice bin; gluing shut the door to their son’s room with super glue, and so on. Ah Hung said: “He goes to extremes. Once after a temper tantrum, in the middle of the night, he dumped a bucket of water on me so that I could not sleep. Another time, he yelled at me to get out of the house, then poured two buckets of water on my clothes.”
Ah Hung had tried calling the police. But in these cases of emotional abuse, all that the police could do was advise her to stay away temporarily. One night, she took refuge at a 24-hour McDonald’s outlet and sat there till daybreak. “I didn’t feel safe enough to sleep there. That was when I realised there were many homeless people in Hong Kong. There were men and women, young and old, all spending the night at McDonald’s.”
One incident at the beginning of this year stiffened her resolve to leave. Affected by her husband’s temper tantrum, she found herself losing it, too. “After I calmed down, I realised this could not go on,” she said. “I would end up like him.”
Home of Blessings: Providing shelter from the storm
When we met at the Home of Blessings, Ah Hung had left her husband for only two weeks. She was determined to start afresh. The Home of Blessings was the first shelter set up by the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, intended as a halfway house for single women and families who had no place to go.
Angel Shih, the association’s senior hostel officer, said:
“There’s a Chinese proverb that goes, ‘A stable home, a happy career’: we need a stable home before we can have a happy career. Our sense of security comes from having a roof over our heads. This is why we want to give homeless people a roof over their heads, so that they have the time and space to take a breather, work out the problems they face, and strike out on a new path.”
Over the years, the Home of Blessings has been a refuge for many women and families in crisis, including: families who lost their home to redevelopment; women who suffered from domestic violence or who were abandoned by their husbands; women with children who fell on hard times after their husbands died; or women who could not work to support themselves because of physical or mental illness. There is no lack of temporary shelters in Hong Kong that provide women in trouble with several days of accommodation. Sadly, however, the problems they face – including the formidable challenge of finding an affordable place to stay – cannot be solved in a few days, or even weeks.
Helping the helpless find a new direction
Providing emergency shelter for one or two weeks, while necessary, does not go far enough to help women whose lives are falling apart, Angel said. A service gap had opened up. “These women need a place that provides mid-to-long-term accommodation, and the need among single women is especially acute.” Typically, the women stay for about half a year. As the association does not receive funding from the Social Welfare Department, it has the flexibility to extend the term of stay where needed, on a case-by-case basis.
While the intention to help is admirable, help can truly benefit only when it is given with wisdom. This is true even for a critically needed service like a halfway house. All women who arrive at the Home of Blessings are asked to draw up a plan for themselves. With the help of social workers, they set a target date of departure for themselves and goals for their future. Besides, all residents must pay a rent of HK$1,000 a month, to encourage them to take responsibility for their lives. This is good preparation for life after the halfway house; after all, they must get used to putting aside a sum of money each month to pay Hong Kong’s notoriously high rent.
Everyone at the home has a story to tell, said Angel.
“Some women just needs a quiet place to take a rest, or while they wait for their public housing allocation. So we let them recharge, and get ready to stand on their own feet when they leave the home. Some women aren’t good at financial management, so we help them to set targets for saving money and work towards them. Some women lack motivation. We are firm with them, and push them to find a job within a certain time.”
Daily life at the Home of Blessings: Handling emotions and soothing anxiety
Generally, residents at the Home of Blessings will have been assigned a social worker each to help them recover from their emotional trauma and find a more permanent home. But in the close-knit environment at the Home, Angel and her colleagues find themselves becoming a part of the women’s lives, too. More often than not, they are called upon to provide support to women dealing with painful memories. They help to soothe the women’s anxieties about their future, and even suggest parenting tips to mothers who need them.
On our visit, Angel took us on a tour of the Home’s facilities. While walking around, we met Ah Kuen, who was reading the Bible in her room. A past victim of domestic violence, Ah Kuen once considered suicide. In September last year, she left her husband, taking with her their eight-year-old son. She first sought refuge at an emergency shelter, and was later transferred to the Home. Now she works as a part-time housekeeper and is saving money, while she waits to be assigned a public rental flat of her own.
“I rarely think about the past now,” Ah Kuen said. “I just want to live a good life with my son.” Her challenge is getting along with a son who has turned rebellious. Their fights had grown so intense that several times, the boy even became violent and pushed her. Ah Kuen was devastated. “My biggest worry now is our relationship,” she said.
To help her, Angel contacted a play therapist who can work with mother and child to find the source of their communication breakdown. Angel praised Ah Kuen for her willingness to learn. As proof, she said, Ah Kuen’s relationship with her son had already improved over the past several months. At the least, of late, the pair were rarely heard fighting.
Creating the feeling of home in a half-way house
“We’re short of staff, to be honest,” Angel said. “So there’s a lot we can’t do. We sometimes try to tap external resources. For instance, some kind-hearted therapists have offered their services at a low fee, and church volunteers come and help us run flower arrangement and dance classes. Every month, we have a pot-luck party and invite each of the women to cook a dish or two to share with the others. This fosters a share-and-care environment which, hopefully, gives the women a feeling of home.
“To me, this isn’t about being a professional service provider. The women are more than case files. I hope what we do is providing a human service. Each of them may have problems of their own, which they must face on their own, but we all long for the comfort of having someone walk with us in difficult times.
“Some of the women who had since left told me that Home of Blessings was more like a real home to them than their own in the past. This may be a strange thing to say, and perhaps inappropriate, but for some people, this is the sad reality,” Angel said.
For Ah Kuen, the Home gave her hope and strengthened her confidence that she can provide a good, financially secure and independent life for herself and her son. For Ah Hung, the Home gave her the peace and quiet she needs to think, a relief after living in constant fear for more than 20 years. Now, she no longer has to go outside the house to make a phone call, for fear of her husband’s reaction. Indeed, she can stop looking over her shoulders all the time for fear of him.
Looking ahead, Ah Hung thinks her biggest problem will be finding a more permanent home she can afford. “My opportunities in life have come and gone. Now I am no longer young. I have little savings, and my abilities are limited. I don’t know if I can find a job that can pay the rent.”
The housing problem is also Angel’s biggest headache.
The frustration of a social worker: How hard do we have to work in order to live with dignity?
“When we see the housing some of the women had to put up with after they left the Home, we get really mad,” Angel said. “They already work so hard. But with $3,000 to $4,000 a month to spare for rent, all they can afford is a tiny space with truly awful living conditions – windows that cannot be opened, mattress placed right behind the toilet, or a toilet doubling as a kitchen. This is supposed to be the way out to their problems? Where’s the hope exactly?”
Angel and her colleagues pay close attention to the economy. In an economic downturn, although those on low incomes are often among the first to suffer job loss or pay cut, their rental often remain stubbornly unaffected. When property prices begin to fall, the first to be hit are the luxury properties, followed by the private housing of the middle class. When the falling trend finally filters down to the subdivided cubicles, the downturn is almost over.
The shortage of liveable housing will only become more acute, Angel said. She believed that, soon, even the middle classes may not be safe from the dangers of losing their home, and the government must change its housing policy to ensure that all Hong Kong people can live with dignity. But before any change comes, Angel and her colleagues must get over their frustration, and adopt the spirit of the boy who picks up stranded starfishes at the beach to save them, one by one: no matter the larger outcome, every life they help counts.
Picking up starfishes at the beach
“I’ve noticed that some women who displayed symptoms of depression when they arrived got better after some time. For many, it seems, having a roof over their heads really is a kind of therapy,” Angel said.
“Many people who are going through a rough patch think they are on their own, and they can’t see the resources around that’s available to them. But when they begin to walk out of their shell, they will discover that they have the choice to ask for help, and often help will be given. Our job is like lighting a lamp in the dark – we can’t walk their path for them, but we can guide them towards the light, and hope.”
How the Home of Blessings began
In January 2010, the collapse of a tenement building in Ma Tau Wai not only took four lives, but also pushed the government to redouble its efforts to redevelop old blocks. One by one, blocks in the older districts became targets for renewal. While many eagerly await the change, folks at the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association began to ask: what will happen to the residents who were moved out?
The Home of Blessings was set up initially to rehouse the affected families. But as the pace of redevelopment slows, there were fewer families that needed rehousing. At the same time, there was a growing number of single women in need of a refuge. As a result, the association decided to open its doors to single women, and the Home of Blessings became its first women’s hostel.
Funds from Fu Tak Iam Foundation enabled the Home of Blessings to renovate its premises to serve women in need. Four years later, the Home is still going strong.
The “borderline” women that fall between the cracks
Among the women the Home of Blessings serves, Angel particularly watches out for one group: women of “borderline intellectual functioning”, which means their tested IQ is lower than the average, yet above what would generally be classified as constituting a mental disability.
“A common trait of women in this group is they tend to have a poor grasp of money management, and they are easily cheated. They also tend to get involved with men easily, get pregnant easily, and are more casual about decisions to abort. You can’t say they are promiscuous, however, because they don’t have very strong concepts about relationships,” Angel said. “They may look no different from you or I, but once you get to know them, you would see that they have poor judgment. They fall into debt easily, and are easily persuaded to hand over their tens of thousands of dollars in savings.”
Too often, Angel and her colleagues at the Home of Blessings have had to go with one or another of the women to the telecoms company or beauty centre to try to cancel the expensive subscription plan or package that the women have signed up for, but in fact cannot afford.
“These women tend to be hard-working, but they find it hard to find a job or live an independent life. Finding a place to rent is even more difficult. I’ve asked the relevant authorities if these women could be entitled to the social services accorded to those with mental disabilities, but was told there’s no such provision yet.
“I would like to find them some service resources they can tap into. I hope to make this my next goal,” Angel said.