China Can’t Help Its Homeless Alone 

It once tried to ship them out of cities. Then it tried to shelter them. Now it’s asking NGOs for an assist.

A homeless Chinese man offers his 6-year-old daughter up for adoption.
A homeless Chinese man offers his 6-year-old daughter up for adoption along a street in Beijing on Feb. 25, 2010. 

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

This post originally appeared on Caixin.

Drivers roll up car windows as an autumn wind chills a traffic-clogged overpass in western Beijing’s Liuliqiao area. And under the concrete overpass, homeless people are gathering for a chilly night’s rest after wandering city streets.

Among the homeless is a 52-year-old man surnamed Chen. He sits between two suitcases brought from his hometown in Hebei, the northern province next to Beijing, about a year ago. His hair is filthy and tangled, his hands marked with vitiligo. The suitcases contain everything Chen owns.

For the money needed to buy food, Chen sells plastic bottles and scrap metal collected from trash bins. He returns to his spot under the overpass every evening. Some cold winter nights, he beds down on a hallway floor at the Beijing West Railway Station.

But this is not a typical evening. As Chen settles down between his suitcases, he’s approached by two women in their 20s. They address him politely.

“Good evening, sir,” says one of the visitors, Wang Yuan. “We are volunteers.”

Wang and her colleagues are visiting Chen as social workers from a nongovernmental organization called Ruifeng Social Service Center. Every Thursday evening, they take to the streets to find homeless people who need help. Tonight, they’re caring for Chen.

Ruifeng’s volunteers are among a growing number of social workers whose services for the homeless are subsidized by the Beijing government. Their work has been picking up steam over the past two years and got an official stamp of approval in August, when the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security released a document giving local governments permission “to buy services” from NGOs that provide temporary shelter and other services to the homeless.

Ruifeng’s director, Lu Xinping, calls the document “a good beginning.”

“Although we are still at an early stage” of caring for street people, Lu says, “over the past decade the government has been moving away from the forced custody and repatriation system to a more humane ways of treating homeless people in cities.”

Wang is a professional social worker, but on the street she calls herself a “volunteer”—and never an employee linked to a government-financed NGO—so that she can build trust among the homeless she meets. Her approach is necessary because many homeless people have had negative experiences with government-run shelters that played a central role in a much-criticized approach to the issue that saw people detained and then sent to their hometowns. That method of dealing with the problem was abolished in 2003.

“Some of them have been traumatized by their experiences at shelters,” said Zheng Zigeng, Ruifeng’s administrative assistant.

The repatriation system was established in 1982 as part of a government program aimed at stopping people from leaving their hometowns without government permission. The system gave police the right to detain anyone who could not show a residence permit or temporary living permit. Targeted by the system were beggars and homeless people who had come to cities looking for a better way of life. After holding them in centers for short periods, police often sent these people back to their hometowns.

The 2003 death of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker in the southern province of Guangdong whose hometown was far away in the central province of Hubei, triggered an outcry that led to reforms. Sun died from physical abuse inflicted on him by police while being detained in a center in the city of Guangzhou.

Later, the detention center network was replaced with a system through which the government offered “temporary shelter for the homeless” with the goal of “maintaining social order in cities.” Government agencies were ordered to “encourage and support social organizations and individuals that help homeless people and beggars.”

The country had nearly 2,000 shelters and 20,000 social workers to help its more than 3 million homeless people last year, the Ministry of Civil Affairs reports.

A shelter serving Beijing’s Fengtai District, which includes the Liuliqiao overpass area, serves about 3,000 people annually, or about one-fifth of the capital’s homeless people. It has 40 staff members and 130 beds in 30 rooms. These kinds of shelters and their staff members face demands that go far beyond bedding. Many of the homeless they see are ill, disabled, or suffering from mental disorders. Some are very young, others elderly.

The ministry report said one-third of the nation’s homeless are under age 18, over age 65, disabled, or suffering from a critical or mental illness. As a result, much of the money received from the government to care for people in the shelters is spent on health care, or to buy bus or train tickets for those who must return to their hometowns.

The Fengtai shelter receives annual government subsidies of up to 8 million yuan (about $1.2 million U.S.), said Song Liansheng, the district government’s spokesman, and most of this money goes toward health treatment and transportation fees.

Other special services—job training or hiring lawyers for street people victimized by scammers—have to be handled by groups such as Ruifeng, Song said. “We sign contracts with social organizations and tell them what we need.”

The problems can be complicated, and the work for Ruifeng employees can be grueling. “We are like a nerve ending,” said a Ruifeng social worker. “We need to communicate with everyone, to figure out their needs and provide services accordingly.”

In addition to Ruifeng, Beijing’s homeless can get help from Hefeng, a nonprofit social services provider, in the city’s Xicheng District. District officials approached Hefeng for help after finding them caring for people on Xicheng streets.

“The government found our contact information on the aid bags of bread and sausages that we gave to homeless people and reached out to us,” said Zhang Xiao, Hefeng’s founder. “That’s how our collaboration started.”

Despite government subsidies and willing social workers, many NGOs that help the homeless are facing staff shortages and other daunting challenges. Hefeng started in 2014 with five staff members, but has struggled to hire more because of a lack of money. And those hired by NGOs can expect low salaries. Zhongdin, another nonprofit social services provider in the capital, can afford to pay its director only 4,500 yuan per month after one year on the job, said Su Feng, the NGO’s chief executive.

Su said NGOs and government agencies have yet to develop collaborative relationships. Because governments tell social agencies how to spend their subsidies, some 80 percent of these funds must be spent on services to the homeless, while less than 10 percent can be set aside for salaries.

And some problems that contributed to the Sun tragedy still exist. A social worker who asked not to be named said that Beijing police continue to detain “undesirable” street people in facilities similar to custody and repatriation centers if the city is hosting a major event such as an annual meeting of the legislature.

Another problem is overcrowding. Social workers say shelters are overflowing because they don’t have a clear definition of homelessness.

When custody and repatriation centers were abolished, the former minister for civil affairs, Li Xueju, said the replacement shelters should care for people who cannot care for themselves, have no reliable relatives or friends, are not eligible for government support, and are found begging.

But in fact, a shelter worker said, these facilities are often packed with people who technically do not fall into any of these categories. Some are considered “professional” beggars who take advantage of the shelter system.

Social workers at one shelter said they don’t know how to handle one beggar in his 70s who has lived their intermittently for more than a decade. Money he collects from handouts is used to buy alcohol and gifts for relatives rather than being spent on rent.

“We really don’t know how to deal with him,” the worker said.