‘I have no other way’: Hong Kong’s underdog survive on leftover food court as pandemic takes its toll, Asia News

Cindy Chan, in her 40s and wearing a ragged and stained face mask, desperately sweeps items such as cookies and canned goods in her bag from a ‘Gift and Take’ refrigerator in a food court at the Dragon Center mall in Sham Shui Po.

The refrigerator offers dried food donated to the needy, and a scrawny Chan is among those who quickly emptied it. The food court is one of her haunts where she gathers scraps for food.

On some occasions, she targeted customers’ leftovers, including at a nearby McDonald’s.

Chan is among Hong Kong’s poor and unemployed who have fallen further into the cracks of society as a fifth wave of Covid-19 tears through the city, with strict control measures bringing a wide range of people to their knees. companies.

Charities and NGOs have reported an increase in demand for services such as free meals for the needy, and there have been younger claimants among those asking for help. Many have lost their livelihoods due to harsh social distancing measures.

“Some friends have asked me why I have to live like this… I have no other way,” Chan told the To post , bursting into tears. “I will look for something dry like chips, chicken nuggets and bread from leftover food as they seem more hygienic.”

Chan, a former clerk, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and rashes on her hands, has been out of work for two years since the outbreak of the pandemic.

She survives on a monthly disability allowance of HK$2,000 (S$347) and has been looking for a job, but to no avail. She now earns by doing odd jobs.

Showing her battered hands, she said in dismay, “A lot of people call me ugly and old. With a pair of hands like this, a lot of people don’t want to hire me.

“I can’t be a waitress because my rash will scare customers away. I also cannot work as a delivery person because my condition is not suitable for exposure to the sun.

Government figures showed more than one in five Hong Kongers, or 1.65 million people, lived in poverty in 2020, the most since record keeping began 12 years ago.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Welfare said it had commissioned NGOs to operate a short-term food assistance service across the city to provide food to the needy for up to eight weeks, and which could be extended for another eight weeks.

In 2020, 19,438 people requested the service, a 48% increase from 13,142 in 2019. The number rose to 21,987 last year, up 13.1% from 2020. The government has also allocated an additional HK$212 million in 2020. -21 to meet increased demand for the service.

City leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had warned that Hong Kong’s unemployment rate would continue to worsen after rebounding to a five-month high of 4.5% between December and February, from 3, 9% between November and January. There were 157,900 people unemployed in the last period.

On Friday, the government rolled out HK$31 billion in wage subsidies for employers and HK$3 billion in unemployment aid during the outbreak.

Chan had once tried to approach NGOs for free packed lunches, but those she contacted turned her down saying they only gave free meals to the elderly, she said.

Park, 52, who only gave his last name and runs a Korean food stall at the Dragon Center, said he noticed there were people looking for leftovers at the food court over the past two months as Covid-19 infections raged.

“They include a young man in his twenties and two or three older men. They come here every two or three days and seem to be starving,” he said.

“They are looking for leftovers, regardless of the type of food. The staff here just left them alone.

other

Willie Ng Chung-leung, founder of the Shirley’s Heart Charity Foundation, which has been distributing free packed lunches to the needy in Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok for two years, said he met around 40 people collecting the leftover trash cans on the streets and in various food courts.

He offered them free meals, hoping to restore some dignity to the oppressed.

“There are young and old among them. Some have mental illnesses or emotional issues while others sleep rough or are unemployed with chronic illness,” he said.

Ng added that they were all reluctant to apply for welfare for various reasons, such as being intimidated by bureaucracy and complex application procedures.

It has noted a 20% increase in demand for its lunch box distributions, which involves distributing 4,000 packed lunches a month to people such as the elderly, members of ethnic minorities, rough sleepers and other people living with leftovers.

“My mission is to fill the stomachs of the needy for humanitarian reasons,” he said. “I have referred them to other relevant organizations to monitor their conditions, but their other issues are beyond my ability to resolve.”

A spokeswoman for Food Angel, a food rescue and relief program of the Bo Charity Foundation, said a week after the Lunar New Year in February, a staggering 6,000 applicants applied for its vending machine service. food, as part of the Jockey Club’s food assistance programme. .

“There is a strong demand. The number of applicants during this week exceeded the 5,000 applicants accumulated in the past. We were shocked,” she said.

Under the program, licensed users receive 45 coupons each month to redeem cold-cooked meals from food vending machines in various districts for up to one year. The service aims to ease the financial burden of those affected by Covid-19.

“In the past, users were mostly older people. But in this new batch of candidates, there are young people in their twenties, ”said the spokesperson.

“Many of them have recently found themselves unemployed amid business closures caused by strict social distancing measures. They are at their wit’s end and have no choice but to use our services.

Chan Cheuk-ming, 70, owner of Pei Ho Counterparts, known for offering free box lunches to underprivileged people in Sham Shui Po, said those who live on leftover food could sign up for Dragon Center and once their verified unemployed status, he would offer them two free meals a day.

Nicknamed “Ming Gor”, and handing out some 2,000 free meals a month, Chan said that as long as people were in need and registered with an NGO, he would not hesitate to offer help. “As long as they turn to us…we won’t turn them down.”

The Department of Social Care spokesperson said service users with long-term social needs would be referred to the appropriate units for assistance.

“The department will keep the economic situation in mind and review the operation of the service,” he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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