For over a decade, 62-year old Danny languished on a footbridge in North Point. Homeless and hopeless, he’d been confronted by numerous social workers over the years, none of whom could help him. One cold day in December 2017, a Canadian man approached him bearing food. Over time, he offered friendship and, later, the promise of a brighter future.
Today, Danny has a roof over his head, a community of professionals committed to his wellbeing, a part-time job that enables him to serve other homeless individuals, and – with an address and resume to his name – the hope of full-time employment in the coming months. Danny has a second chance at life, thanks to the compassion and commitment of hero to the homeless, Jeff Rotmeyer.
Jeff, a Canadian-born English teacher who moved to Hong Kong twelve years ago, is the founder of Impact HK – a one-year old NGO that supports and empowers the homeless. Already the founder of a charity for the Down Syndrome and autistic community, his desire to help the homeless began in 2014 when a friend opened his eyes to the plight of street sleepers in Sham Shui Po. Distraught by what he learned that day, Jeff embarked on a monthly ‘kindness walk’ and invited friends to join him. It wasn’t long before Hong Kong’s huge-hearted community got wind of this simple yet powerful way to serve the needy. Impact HK was born and now there are at least 30 walks per month in five locations across the city.
Every day, volunteers meet with the homeless and hand out food, toiletries, free laundry coupons and other necessities. Most importantly, they offer the one thing that could’ve saved these individuals from the streets in the first place: connection.
Jeff explains: “People become homeless for many reasons, but I’ve seen one commonality: they have zero connections. They don’t have best friends and they don’t have family members strong enough to stop them from becoming homeless in the first place. We do the kindness walks to build trust. Once we have their trust, we build friendship. Once we have friendship… well, you wouldn’t let your friend sleep outside on the street, would you?”
Positive Friendships; Positive Futures
There are currently more than 1,000 registered street sleepers in Hong Kong, according to Government statistics. These figures exclude the numerous homeless individuals that aren’t registered as homeless. Recent reports indicate a growing number of street sleepers are employed but can’t afford the city’s astronomical rents.
Impact HK’s goal is to provide the homeless with a connection to friends, society and a safe and comfortable home. When their homeless friends show willingness and commitment to take the leap, the charity endeavors to raise funds to give them a home. Impact HK pays a two-month deposit, one month’s rent and the real estate fee for an apartment, which, in total, adds up to approximately $62,000. Their once-homeless friend is empowered to continue paying rent through part-time employment as Community Helpers at the Guestroom, the charity’s new day care in Tai Kok Tsu. Their job is to serve and show kindness to the 400+ homeless people in the surrounding area, which gives them a sense of pride and helps with their rehabilitation.
At the Guest Room – where the homeless have access to food, clothing, toiletries, towels and a shower across the street – Community Helpers receive a one-year rehabilitation program in the form of counseling, nutrition guidance, financial advice and mentorship.
“The individuals on the street are in incredible pain. Being homeless in Hong Kong is extremely difficult and destructive. There’s the pain that they suffer while they’re homeless and there’s the pain they had that led them to homelessness. To expect that individual to jump into a full-time job is ridiculous. What we do is provide a stepping stone with love, kindness and opportunity to really give them a holistic transformation and rehabilitation,” Jeff explains.
Earlier this month, Jeff and his team homed and hired their tenth Community Helper. CK had been living on a footbridge in Sham Shui Po, the poorest area in the city.
“CK is a gentleman I’ve known for a year. He has shown that he is ready for the change. I don’t have the funds for him but I’m going to do this anyway. We’ll find a way to raise the money,” he shares.
The Power of Numbers
Jeff is calling on the generosity of Hong Kongers to raise funds essential to rehabilitate CK and the many homeless people who are ready to take the leap with the charity’s help.
In addition to financial support, Jeff hopes more volunteers will step up and serve. More walk leaders are needed to oversee the kindness walks, as are more counsellors, mentors, sports coaches, and kind individuals to help out at the Guest Room.
“We’ve only been able to get to where we are through the power of numbers. People in Hong Kong are willing to serve; they truly care about making a difference. Every single person has their own piece of a puzzle that they can offer to this,” he says.
From Collaboration to Job Creation
With the commitment of partners and volunteers, Jeff is setting the wheels in motion for a massive job creation movement within three key industries: painting, second hand clothing and recycling.
By the end of summer, Jeff will launch the Second Coat Painting Company, where Community Helpers will receive training and salaries to paint residential and commercial properties and – partnering with Habitat for Humanity – paint senior homes.
Given how many packages of clothing the charity receives every day, Jeff also plans to establish a second-hand clothing store. Manned by Community Helpers, a pair of jeans will come with an affordable price tag of no more than $10 – a far cry from the prices existing second-hand stores charge the seniors in Sham Shui Po who are desperate for second hand clothing.
“Our employees will be those that were once homeless and are in our rehabilitation program. It’s a triple whammy: wages, clothing and hiring people that need jobs! We’re giving people the opportunity to work; we’re building up their experience; and we’re giving them an address.
Through multiple connections, we will empower them, rehabilitate them and give them their second chance at life.”
Angela Kaur Baura is the founder and chief storyteller at Inkspirer – a content writing consultancy that collaborates with editors and entrepreneurs to empower individuals on their life journey. As a content writer and communications strategist, she has two decades of experience writing stories worth telling for global and local brands across Asia, the US and the UK.