HONG KONG—A new system aimed at helping the growing number of homeless on the streets of China’s cities has done little to curb the number of beggars, homeless people, and street children, officials say.
An official surnamed Zhao at a reception center for the homeless in Beijing’s Mentougou district said the numbers of people coming through the doors of the center had increased dramatically this summer.
“There have been a lot this summer—more than in any other year. Particularly large numbers from other provinces,” Zhao said.
“A lot of the people we see have problems of one kind or another,” he said.
“Some of them are mentally retarded to some degree. Sometimes they are older people with nowhere to go. Usually, the older people have some kind of dementia. There are so many of them from other cities.”
Chinese officials took a fairly hard line towards the homeless until the 2003 death in police custody of graphic designer Sun Zhigang, who had been detained because he carried no identification papers.
Before Sun’s death, the homeless were routinely rounded up, incarcerated, and sent back to their hometowns.
After Sun’s death sparked a massive public outcry, the State Council abolished the old system of forcible detention centers, replacing it with the 2003 “Guidelines for the management of people in cities with no income, homeless people and beggars.”
Under the new rules, extensive background checks were to be run on the homeless, including their place of origin, and their relatives were to be notified and told to come and collect them.
The authorities in the person’s hometown were told to find places for them to live and to meet their daily living needs.
Fitness to work
An employee who answered the phone at the Beijing municipal government welfare assistance center said that officials now carry out extensive investigations into a person’s background, and that those who fail to qualify for social assistance will be refused.
“First of all we look at whether the person is capable of work,” she said.
“If they are, on the whole, we don’t do anything for them. We would get in touch with their relatives. At the same time, those people who really have no way of helping themselves would receive basic social assistance,” she added.
“We also might help young girls from the countryside [to get home].”
Meanwhile, the growing number of professional beggars in China’s increasingly affluent major cities remain untouched by the new measures and are more likely to be detained by police than offered food and accommodation.
“We don’t really deal with these sorts of people,” said Zhao, whose center can offer up to 10 days’ free board and lodging to people who qualify for assistance.
“That’s for the police station to sort out. They have to investigate.”
“Most of them are held for a couple of days and then taken to the long-distance bus station where they are bought a ticket and sent home on a bus,” he added.
Despite growing numbers of people flooding relief centers, Zhao said the Mentougou shelter currently houses only 30 occupants, although it can hold more than 100.
The exact number of homeless people in China is unknown, but the national relief system set up in 2003 initially targeted around 800,000 homeless children and adults.
Ding Qun, a former migrant worker from the eastern province of Shandong, said very little assistance is available even at the homeless assistance centers.
“I went there to get social assistance, but they just give you a single steamed bun,” Ding said.
“They don’t give you any green vegetables ... They might give you some grains. They give you nothing to drink, not even boiled water.”
Ding’s son wanders the streets with her, and owing to China’s household registration system, has been refused government schooling in Beijing.
Officials estimate that around 150,000 street children roam China’s cities, and have pledged to double the number of child shelters to 300 by 2010.
Not enough aid
Many of the homeless come from smaller cities or remote areas of China’s countryside.
A recent public opinion poll carried out in Guangzhou showed that 52 percent of people don’t believe the government’s welfare program is helping to alleviate the extreme poverty experienced by some in China’s countryside.
According to Zhao, if people really can’t work because of a disability, merely sending them home and giving them welfare handouts isn’t going to be enough either, because this fails to take account of their social needs.
“Even if you do give them welfare, they won’t necessarily stay off the streets,” Zhao said. “They will still come out and wander around. They can’t stick at home all day.”
“As for the professional beggars, you can give them all the food and drink they can eat but they’ll still be off again afterwards.”
“They can get quite a bit of money out on the streets, rather than sitting at home waiting for their tiny welfare payment to arrive.”
Blind musician and street performer Liu Guo said better social assistance payments for disabled people—still frequently refused entry to China’s universities—would be a crucial part of any successful social welfare package.
“If you gave disabled people proper social support we wouldn’t want to waste all that time and energy walking the streets,” he said.
“Things are very difficult for us. In my family, we are all extremely limited as to what we can do physically.”
“These days, it’s hard for me even to make enough to take care of my health. All I can do is live hand-to-mouth and hope to get by through my singing,” Liu 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.