Services, staff, standards: a glimpse of an NGO’s struggles when combating homelessness

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As Hong Kong has seen substantial and consistent growth in the number of street sleepers over the last decade, the government is urged to examine and improve the funding structure for NGOs that is regarded as rigid and ineffective and to take up a proactive role in assisting the homeless. 

Photo courtesy of Sara Cheng.

The Hong Kong government has banned dining in from 6 PM to 5 AM as local COVID-19 cases soar, forcing McRefugees to spend their nights out on the streets again as a similar measure to suspend late-night service took place in March. The perpetual struggle for a thousand street sleepers to seek long-term shelter may be a result of some inflexible and outdated homelessness policies. 

Back on the streets 

According to the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), there were at least 448 McRefugees in 2018, a 7.8-time surge compared to 57 people in 2013. Over half of them had been homeless two to five times while 35 percent said it was their first time living without shelter. 

“First, there aren’t enough accommodation places to meet their [street sleepers] immediate needs. Second, if they get into a government-subverted hostel that is better-equipped and structured and where they can stay 24-hours, the period of stay is six months maximum,” says Mr Ng Wai Tung, SoCO Community Organiser.

“After that, they will revert to homelessness.” 

He cites a SoCO study that a street sleeper had experienced homelessness 4.5 times on average in 2017, a rapid rise from 2.8 times in 2013. 

When the street beats a flat

“Private apartments are one of the options, but their living condition is bad. In the summer, there are wood bugs, and it is stuffy and humid, so they [street sleepers] return to the streets,” Mr Ng says, “and they cannot afford a decent subdivided flat that has a private toilet.” 

According to a Census and Statistics Department report, the median monthly rent for a subdivided unit stood at HK$4,500 in 2016. 

“Friend Home” is a SoCO hostel established in 2018 with external funding. It offers 24 places with a stay duration of three years in the hopes of helping residents develop long-term accommodation plans, but since the funding will run out in 2021, its operation may face disruption. 

The period of stay at all current government-subvented shelters is six months. Long term shelters like “Friend Home” are not recognised by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) and are excluded from government subvention. 

Mr Ng calls for the government to open accommodation places that provide three-year terms to address the problem of “recurring homelessness”. If a new service is launched, “Friend Home” can join the open-bidding system and possibly obtain a subvention. 

More and more

From 2010 to 2018, the number of registered street sleepers in Hong Kong doubled from around 500 to 1,127. Among them, 35 percent had slept outdoors for five to 10 years, and 22 percent had been homeless for more than ten years. 

The actual figure of the homeless population might be higher. A survey conducted by City University in collaboration with four NGOs identified more than 1,600 homeless persons in 2015. Half of them resided on the streets, in parks, under flyovers and other public spaces.

Nevertheless, between 2010 to 2018, the number of subvented places had slightly increased by 20, adding up to 220, and were all additions to the existing hostels. Currently, there are 635 overnight and temporary accommodation places. 

SWD does not indicate whether they would consider long-term shelters. “Given the purpose and nature of emergency shelter/short-term accommodation, the hostels subvented by SWD are for meeting emergency and short-term needs with the maximum duration of stay set at six months,” the spokesman wrote to Harbour Times

Shortage of staff

Like the majority of NGOs in Hong Kong, SoCO’s Care and Support Networking Team (CSNT) has been under Lump-Sum Grant (LSG) subventions since its establishment in 2003. CSNT serves street sleepers as well as ex-offenders and ex-mentally ill persons through outreach, visits, and the operation of a day community centre. 

Introduced in 2001, LSG replaced the prior mode of subvention wherein the government reimbursed NGOs for actual costs spent on services. It consists of two main components: personal emoluments, which are calculated based on the mid-point salary of the recognised establishment plus 6.8 percent Provident Fund, and other charges, which cover all other relevant operating expenses, including administrative and programme expenses. The system was designed to give service providers autonomy over resource allocation to meet the needs of society. 

To determine the amount of subvention of personal emoluments, SWD estimates Notional Staffing Establishment (NSE), the number of staff that the service unit will need to provide the concerned service output. According to Mr Ng, the estimation for CSNT has been 1.2 social workers and two programme officers since it commenced service, but they hired three social workers because they served three groups of people. 

Under LSG, NGOs are free to deploy the subvention of personal emoluments to employ staff without following the NSE, which means if an NGO wanted, they could choose not to hire social workers. 

“I have been in the team since 2003, and my colleague as well. As our wages rise with job seniority, it gets harder to recruit the third social worker because Lump Sum Grant is not adjusted according to the need of manpower,” Mr Ng says. 

CSNT was on the verge of going over budget in 2018. After one of the social workers left the job for personal reasons, the organisation decided to leave the post empty. Since then, CSNT has consisted of two social workers and one programme officer. 

Mr Ng added, “The major distinction is that we [social workers] need to do counselling…these are hard-core cases; they have been homeless for years, and you will need to change their behaviour and perception of things so social workers should handle that.”

According to SWD, the personal emoluments and other charges components are adjusted annually under the Civil Service Pay Adjustment and the Composite Consumer Price Index respectively. However, it says it will provide “additional resources to SoCO to employ more staff in terms of a psychiatric nurse, social worker and driver to strengthen assistance to street sleepers” in 2020-21. 

Meeting the standards

Service providers receiving LSG are obligated to meet the Performance Standards drafted by the government under Funding and Service Agreements. For instance, CSNT must conduct outreach to 400 new vulnerable individuals in a year. 80 percent of those must have their urgent needs met as the outcome. 

Considering the lack of labour support, the government reduced the total number of individuals or households receiving active counselling service at least once a month from CSNT from 200 to 180 annually. However, in return, CSNT has to conduct eight new programmes such as talks, workshops, exhibitions, or publication of educational booklets each year to fulfil the output standards. Mr Ng thinks the move does not help lessen their workload. 

Mr Ng says, “Striving to comply with the standards does not stress out the workers, but not being able to help our clients stresses us out. The reason why we are helpless is that the supply of services is far from enough to catch up with the growth of the homeless population.”

In response, SWD says it is considering to increase the provision of Temporary Financial Aid so that CSNT could better support the emergency financial needs of the homeless such as immediate rental deposit or allowance. 

Hong Kong has no official department dedicated to resolving homelessness, and NGOs have shouldered the task. For the past decade, CSNT has been the only homeless-related measure mentioned on the government Budgets. Under the Social Welfare Department, there are three other government-subvented integrated services teams run by St. James Settlement, Salvation Army, and Christian Concern for the Homeless Association. 

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