It is 10 minutes to midnight on a warm, musty Shanghai night. Few people mill around the streets, most choosing to huddle around the pop-up meat stall situated in a street corner, laughing and enjoying the warm stale air.
A few streets away, out front of a clothing store a barefoot woman shifts on a red dirty mat trying to find sleep. Two pink rubber sandals and a plastic bag act as her pillows for the night.
In a closed supermarket carpark some men find shelter, the hard-wooded benches their mattress for the night.
It is during the quiet hours after midnight that Shanghai’s homeless quietly begin to appear.
While the government says it is no longer forcing homeless people to return to their hometowns, it is making new developments to assist them to return.
It is now common for Shanghai rescue stations to use facial recognition technology and DNA tests to return homeless people to their families and hometowns.
Consider this example: An elderly man wanders around in a hot sandy village, homeless, confused and disorientated.
Authorities notice the drifting man and transport him out of the village and into the lively city of Shanghai, where he is left at a homeless rescue station.
The man cannot write or recall his home. His accent and humble personal belongings offer no clue to his origin.
Unsuccessful in identifying the man, the station forwards the photograph to the police where they use facial recognition technology and are able to identify him.
The confused elderly man cries with relief as he is reunited with his family. This is one of many success stories Shanghai rescue stations are reporting to the media.
Every homeless person now has their face photographed when they are registered into the station. For those that cannot be identified, their photograph is sent to the police database for identification. If within seven days no identification is made, a DNA blood sample is collected and sent to police for DNA matching.
Party secretary of a Shanghai rescue station Ding Huirong told Shanghai Daily the station deals with 1,000 homeless people a year on average, of which six per cent cannot be identified due to physiological and psychological reasons.
“Traditional ways like verifying their accent, clothing, appearance, personal items and communication for clues of their hometown can secure about 70 to 80 percent success rate for identification, while new technologies such as electronic information, face recognition and DNA matching can lift the rate to over 90 per cent,” he was quoted as saying.
In a city like Shanghai, which is home to more than 25 million people, it is rare to see a homeless person in the street during daytime.
“It’s a largely hidden problem because homeless people are forced out of public areas into places they can’t be seen,” says an expert in homelessness who wanted to remain unnamed.
“It’s very difficult to gauge whether homelessness is increasing or decreasing…guessing from our work it’s steadily increasing over time.”
Shanghai authorities do not keep official figures on homelessness, making it difficult to know exact numbers.
As China’s rapid urbanisation continues, Shanghai has experienced a big population shift which has influenced homelessness.
Beijing’s Remin University School of Sociology and Population Studies professor Lu Yilong says the income difference between a big city and rural China is a big reason why many rural people move to cities like Shanghai.
“There are more opportunities in big cities for rural labour force,” he says.
“Therefore, although rural labour force may face bigger challenges in big cities, they would choose to go there.”
Many homeless people are rural migrants without a Shanghai hukou, a household registration system, effectively making them non-citizens.
A hukou is a form of legal identity for a Chinese person, which is registered to their parent’s residence.
Migrants can only get a Shanghai hukou if they are given an administrative licence, a very long and difficult process.
“The hukou is a certificate for people to share public rights,” Yilong says. “Many administrative measures are based on the hukou system, such as buying a house and car, children and schooling, and getting welfare.”
Often times homeless people are confused with beggars; both groups receive mixed attitudes from the public.
Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology professor of Asian History Hanchao Lu says: “Most of them [beggars] are physically or mentally disabled and elderly.
“They need food, shelter, and medical care…since they do not have a hukou status in the city, the municipal government has no real responsibilities to help them except for removing them from the main streets for the sake of the city’s image.”
Not-for-profit Shanghai organisation Stepping Stones executive director Corinne Hua says migrants have little access to medical care and welfare services.
“Their residence status does not allow them to access the same welfare, educational and medical services as local people in Shanghai,” she says.
According to Stepping Stones, it is difficult for rural children to get placement in public schools, and often they can only attend special schools for migrants where the standards and funding is low.
“English is essential for any Chinese child who wants to pursue a high school education; if they cannot pass their English exams, they cannot go to high school or university…many will become manual labourers,” Hua says.
“These children may be the most vulnerable to homelessness.”
Despite the Shanghai government staying quiet on statistics, it has been very involved with the homeless.
Historically officials would round up the homeless from the street and send them back to their hometowns.
A Shanghai homeless shelter director Mr Chao told Timeout Shanghai in 2015 that although the government used to forcibly deport people from the city, things have changed.
“Before 2003, there was a rule that once anyone stepped into the compound, they weren’t allowed to leave until they were put on a train and travelled back to where they came from,” Chao was quoted as saying.
“Now they can come in for a hot meal, a bath, sleep for a little while, and they are free to leave any time.”
Many homeless people, however, remain wary of government-run shelters.
Home Sweet Home is a non-governmental organisation in Shanghai offering support to the homeless and those with disabilities by supplying meals and training to help them become self-sufficient and find employment.
Home Sweet Home executive director Gerie de Pater says: “In general there’s a lack of trust of things that are organised by the government.”
He says the facial recognition technology could be useful, but it may not be welcomed by all.
“The tricky thing is that homeless people don’t necessarily want to be found, maybe because of how they left their family, maybe because they’re not doing well and don’t want to lose face, maybe because they fear the pressure or rejection once they reconnect with their families,” he says.
“Most homeless people are disabled, left home either because of family or internal pressure, are trying to make it big in the city and not finding a job, are running out of money and cannot return as it would be loss of face, so they stay here and end up on the streets.”
Home Sweet Home holds care days for the homeless where they can get a meal, take a shower, wash their clothes and hang out and play some games.
“For many of them, it creates a small sense of community and a short period of rest before they return to their life on the street,” de Pater says.
It’s 10 minutes to sunrise on a warm musty Shanghai dawn. Most people are still dreaming, but a few are out running and performing tai chi in colourful clothes before the sun comes up.
A few streets away, out front of a clothing store a woman rolls up an old dirty mat and looks for somewhere to hide during the day.
In a nearby supermarket carpark, some men leave its temporary shelter and go in search of an open fast food restaurant.
It is during the quiet hours after dawn that Shanghai’s homeless disappear.
Photos: Connie Maturana