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Poor in cages show dark side of Hong Kong boom

By Kelvin Chan

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 4:43 p.m. MST

Leung, the cage dweller, had little faith that the government could do anything to change the situation of people like him.

"It's not whether I believe him or not, but they always talk this way. What hope is there?" said Leung, who has been living in cage homes since he stopped working at a market stall after losing part of a finger 20 years ago. With just a Grade 7 education, he was only able to find intermittent casual work. He hasn't applied for public housing because he doesn't want to leave his roommates to live alone and expects to spend the rest of his life living in a cage.

His only income is HK$4,000 ($515) in government assistance each month. After paying his rent, he's left with $2,700 ($350), or about HK$90 ($11.60) a day.

"It's impossible for me to save," said Leung, who never married and has no children to lean on for support.

Leung and his roommates, all of them single, elderly men, wash their clothes in a bucket. The bathroom facilities consist of two toilet stalls, one of them adjoining a squat toilet that doubles as a shower stall. There is no kitchen, just a small room with a sink. The hallway walls have turned brown with dirt accumulated over the years.

While cage homes, which sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China, are becoming rarer, other types of substandard housing such as cubicle apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty. Nearly 1.19 million people were living in poverty in the first half of last year, up from 1.15 million in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Council Of Social Services. There's no official poverty line but it's generally defined as half of the city's median income of HK$12,000 ($1,550) a month.

Many poor residents have applied for public housing but face years of waiting. Nearly three-quarters of 500 low-income families questioned by Oxfam Hong Kong in a recent survey had been on the list for more than 4 years without being offered a flat.

Lee Tat-fong, is one of those waiting. The 63-year-old is hoping she and her two grandchildren can get out of the cubicle apartment they share in their Wan Chai neighborhood, but she has no idea how long it will take.

Lee, who suffers from diabetes and back problems, takes care of Amy, 9, and Steven, 13, because their father has disappeared and their mother — her daughter — can't get a permit to come to Hong Kong from mainland China. An uncle occasionally lends a hand.

The three live in a 50-square-foot room, one of seven created by subdividing an existing apartment. A bunk bed takes up half the space, a cabinet most of the rest, leaving barely enough room to stand up in. The room is jammed with their possessions: plastic bags filled with clothes, an electric fan, Amy's stuffed animals, cooking utensils.

"There's too little space here. We can barely breathe," said Lee, who shares the bottom bunk with her grandson.

They share the communal kitchen and two toilets with the other residents. Welfare pays their HK$3,500 monthly rent and the three get another HK$6,000 for living expenses but the money is never enough, especially with two growing children to feed. Lee said the two often wanted to have McDonalds because they were still hungry after dinner, which on a recent night was meager portions of rice, vegetables and meat.

The struggle to raise her two grandkids in such conditions was wearing her out.

"It's exhausting," she said. "Sometimes I get so pent up with anger, and I cry but no one sees because I hide away."

Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman

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