I visited the city of Bristol in South West England last week to attend my nephew’s graduation. Bristol is a vibrant university town, set along the confluence of the rivers Frome and Avon, steeped in history with Iron Age hill forts, Roman villas, beautiful churches and a cobble stoned Old Market with over 60 listed buildings some dating as far back as the 1600’s.
A very popular tourist destination and with a population of around 600,000, this is about all that Bristol has in common with Macau.
Unlike Macau’s clean and tidy streets, in Bristol there was rubbish, broken glass bottles and overflowing bins at most street corners. We were shocked by the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets. In broad daylight there were men and women lying asleep in dirty sleeping bags on the pavement outside the front entrance of supermarkets, on park benches and in tents pitched on one of the town greens alongside the picturesque 11th century cathedral. Groups of homeless congregated in some of the main city squares; faces flushed with alcohol by 10 in the morning, and others looking thin and gaunt, a probable result of drug addiction. We saw the occasional policeman moving them on, only for them to return to their ‘patch’ an hour or so later.
The number of people sleeping rough in England has hit a record-high – after a 73% increase over the last three years. Official government data shows that on any given night in autumn last year, 4750 people were recorded sleeping on the streets, a figure that has more than doubled since 2010.
Campaigners have described the rise as a “catastrophe”. Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, urged that the true number of rough sleepers was far greater after its own research found that more than 8,000 people were currently sleeping rough across England. This is on top of an additional 9,000 homeless people sleeping in tents, cars, trains and buses, the charity warned.
Much of the causes behind homelessness are mental health issues. Plus a steep drop in investment for affordable homes, crude cuts to housing benefits, reduced funding for homelessness services and some say a reluctance to help private renters.
In its history Macau has had its fair share of homelessness, most recently through the war and from political upheaval. Postwar photos reveal that the area known as ZAPE stayed largely unbuilt until the 1980s as it was appropriated for dwellings and vegetable gardens by immigrants or refugees from the mainland who mostly arrived during World War II and Mao’s reform campaigns in the early 1950s.
But in these times of peace, by comparison with the UK, how fortunate we are in Macau to have almost zero begging, and no signs of street sleepers certainly in the central city parts at least. In over 30 years of visiting and then living in Macau, I don’t believe that I’ve ever come across street sleepers, with the exception perhaps of gamblers from Hong Kong, down on their luck, with not enough money to buy a return ferry ticket.
Let’s hope that our housing policies continue to help the less fortunate within Macau’s society. And that enough support is given to our social services. For the Bristol City Council, they have a job I don’t envy but something needs to be done, and soon.