Church people help Hong Kong’s ‘McRefugees’

Father Wotherspoon (standing) with McRefugees at one of the Thursday Dinners MercyHK hosts for them. File photo: UCAN

HONG KONG (UCAN): Church people are seeking ways to house hundreds of McRefugees or McSleepers—so-called because they sleep and shelter in McDonald’s 24-hour outlets in several Hong Kong districts—after the fast food chain decided to close its restaurants to sit in dining after 6.00pm as part of a Covid-19 coronavirus containment measure beginning March 25.

“They have no place to sleep now. I prefer to find a safe place for them,” said Oblate Father John Wotherspoon, who has been helping them for the past four years.

A 2018 survey reported that Hong Kong had 448 homeless people spending nights in fast food restaurants. Father Wotherspoon said most are on the streets now as the government has ignored appeals to shelter them.

ImpactHK, a volunteer agency working among the homeless in Hong Kong, estimated a 20 per cent increase among the city’s homeless people since the Covid-19 outbreak began in January.

The Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong appealed to the government on March 26 to at least open temporary shelters for those affected. 

Project officer, Oscar Lai Man-lok, said that he wrote to five government departments including the Home Affairs Bureau and Social Welfare Department, but the response was negative.

The Home Affairs Department said it could only open temporary shelters during major natural calamities or fires. Moreover, it said it would suspend the opening of any temporary shelters in order to reduce the risk of a large-scale outbreak of Covid-19.

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The Labour Department promised to follow up on the matter without specifying any action.

“They don’t have a policy that defines which department is responsible for McRefugees. The government is insensitive to them and continues to pass the buck around departments,” Lai said.

Lai said he had approached several people to find shelter for the homeless. Some people are renting cheap hotel rooms for a few days but “that’s only a temporary arrangement.”

Father Wotherspoon said some McRefugees are old and weak and could easily contract the coronavirus if exposed to the streets without proper shelter and hygiene.

He said he knows some 70 McRefugees and one is an 85-year-old woman. “She spends nights under an overpass in the city. I’m most worried about her situation,” the Australian missionary said.

He said fast food restaurants were not the safest place to sleep as visitors from affected countries visit them. The homeless could be infected if they came into contact with them. “But it was safer than the streets,” the priest said.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, had promised to walk with the people. If she meant it, she should understand the issue of McRefugees and deal with it in a “more humane manner,” Lai said.

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Lai said the government has funds to take care of such people but does not have clarity of policy. It is the government’s responsibility, he said.

However, some parishes, groups and individuals rented hostels or opened up their own homes to provide temporary accommodation for McRefugees.

“Behind the prosperity of our society, there are still many people sleeping on the streets,” said Lai.

He urged the community to wake up to the plight of the homeless and help them live with human dignity.

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