Dying for a place to sleep

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Desperate times call for desperate measures in an age where high costs of living and a fast-paced world have forced some to the sidelines of the race for survival.

To the other diners at the McDonald’s in Hong Kong, the middle-aged woman slumped over her table was merely asleep.

Such sights have become common in the city and on mainland China, where more than a hundred of the fast-food restaurants open round the clock.

It has made them a place of refuge for those with nowhere else go – the working poor or the homeless.

A name has even been coined for them – “McRefugees”.

This case, though, was different.

When another customer checked on the woman the next morning, he found that she had died during the night. Little is known about her, except that she was 56 and her last name was Lai.

She had entered McDonald’s the morning before. By the time it was realised that she had died, a full day had gone by.

Her death has drawn attention to the plight of McRefugees.

The phenomenon has been observed since 2007 in Japan and China, but has spread to Hong Kong, where rents are notoriously high.

The government has estimated that the number of people sleeping on the street is 806 – double that of 2007 – although welfare groups say the real number is much higher. In general, the McRefugees are left in peace.

But in an incident at a Shanghai McDonald’s in March 2010, a worker was stabbed to death after he tried to expel a sleeper.

After this latest incident, McDonald’s issued a statement saying: “We welcome all walks of life to visit our restaurants any time.”

The company added that it tried to be “accommodating and caring” to customers who stayed a long time in restaurants “for their own respective reasons”.