Down and Out in China

Homelessness poses a large and growing problem in China's cities, with thousands scraping by on what they can beg or earn on the streets.
2009-08-21
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A homeless man sleeps outside a restaurant in Beijing, Nov. 20, 2007.
A homeless man sleeps outside a restaurant in Beijing, Nov. 20, 2007.
AFP

HONG KONG—Tens of thousands of Chinese people wander the streets of China's cities, camping under bridges and overpasses, or selling trash to buy a bunk bed in shanty-town accommodation.

Many are disabled, entitled to scant government aid and forced to busk or beg for a living.

Others have been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for urban redevelopment, while many are on the run from local officials about whom they have tried to complain.

"My social welfare payment for an entire year is just 240 yuan (U.S. $35)," said Liu Guo, who is blind and ekes out a meager living by busking on the streets of Beijing.

"That's not enough for a bottle of mineral water every day. I have no way to make a living. I go out on the streets and really I'm no different from a beggar," he said.

Payments to the boss

Liu said he had also performed with a troupe of disabled singers, who were driven around China in a converted minivan in which they slept.

"What money we made was all up to the boss. We made about 800-1,000 yuan a month. Sometimes people would give us 100 yuan or even 300 yuan. We had to give it all to the boss," he said.

A 2003 survey in Beijing counted a total of 57,000 homeless people who requested help in the entire municipal area, while officials estimate that the average number of homeless is around 10,000 in any given year.

No money for medical care

Ding Qun, a woman in her thirties who has lived on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai for four years, begs every day with her eight-year-old son, who has been refused education by Beijing officials.

In the evenings they bunk down in the railway station or the parks.

Ding's son suffers from headaches and dizziness, but they have no money to see a doctor.

"Sometimes I go without food or drink for a few days, and only go out once in a while," she said.

"I don't want to beg every day. Look at the state I have got into. My kid is sick and can't go to school. It is so hard to be a mother."

"When I went out begging before, my kid used to come with me all the way," Ding said.

"Now he doesn't want to walk alongside me but walks ahead of me and I have to keep an eye on him in case he runs away."

"I would really like to go to school," her son said. "I just want to learn. If I can't get into university, other people will disrespect me."

Growing problem

The growing numbers of homeless people aren't limited to the capital.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, a 2008 survey carried out by the Guangzhou Municipal Homeless Shelter Management Station and Zhongshan University interviewed 600 homeless people and ordinary citizens.

It found that the majority of homeless people were men between the ages of 20 and 60 who had suffered financial ruin or loss of employment, had a disability, or had been injured in industrial accidents.

Some were found to dislike work, while others went out begging to take care of dependents.

While 60 percent of those interviewed had been beggars for more than a year, 18 percent had been on the streets for more than a decade.

Their income from begging ranged from 500 to 1,000 yuan a month, enough to support their existence, but in appalling conditions, the survey said.

The number of homeless is also growing in China following waves of mass forced evictions amid breakneck urban redevelopment all around the country.

A middle-aged homeless woman in Guangzhou said she lost her home to the bulldozers with no opportunity to resist the demolition gang.

"They gave me no warning when they demolished my apartment," she said.

"Neither of us was at home at the time. We don't know what happened to all the stuff in our house, either. We weren't able to salvage any of it."

Professional beggars

An official who answered the phone at the Beijing municipal government people's welfare department said a lot of those registered as homeless in the capital were professional beggars.

"A lot of people who request assistance from us don't meet the requirements," he said.

"A lot of them go from shelter to shelter, using the welfare policies to get a bit here, a payment there, and they are just lazy."

"Other people won't go to the shelters even if we try to persuade them. Those are the professional beggars who operate in the underpasses and under the bridges. I think they make more money than I do," the official said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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