Silence speaks volumes. Jason Cheng of Project Homecoming noticed the silence in August 2020, at the height of the 3rd COVID wave in Hong Kong, when he realized there was no news coverage whatsoever on the situation of homeless people under this unprecedented pandemic. Fast food restaurants, for example, stopped operating 24/7 under the government’s pandemic measures, taking away a crucial space of refuge for many homeless people at night. Jason and his teammate, Angel Lau, decided to learn more, talking to homeless people all over Hong Kong Island to get a grasp on the situation.
Jason and Angel were soon joined by Candace Chan, Angel Chan, and Amy Wan in creating Project Homecoming, as the winner of PILnet’s 2020 Law for Change Student Competition. For this competition, PILnet pairs law students with legal mentors to develop innovative solutions to entrenched social justice needs in Hong Kong, while raising general awareness about the role of law as a tool for change. “Community” has been the overarching theme for the Law for Change Student Competition since 2018. The theme serves as a platform for potential collaboration and partnership across sectors, professions, generations, race, gender, and cultural identity. This year, “community resilience” was the chosen focus.
In a way, Project Homecoming was the embodiment of this year’s theme. The team’s proposal outlined a multi-stage initiative that seeks to assist the homeless community in tackling the adversity that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
The proposal is divided into three stages, the result of a realization during the early stages of the competition. As Candace put it, “homelessness is a social problem that is hard to solve using legal means.” In order for their legal solution to achieve maximum impact, they had to develop a social aspect. The social aspect became Phase 1, which involves a storage gift voucher scheme for homeless people who are employed or seeking employment. When they leave for work, their personal belongings can be stored in lockers at storage centers, thus safeguarding their property rights. Phase 1 is a means to engage with the homeless community, so that they can promote to Phase 2 – a pro bono legal consultation scheme – with greater efficiency and success. This scheme aims to educate the homeless people on their legal rights, offer free legal advice, and connect them with pro bono lawyers and social workers. Finally, Phase 3 aims to bring about change on a structural and fundamental level by raising public awareness of homelessness and breaking down stereotypes via social media, as well as lobbying lawmakers on policy issues.
As their proposal developed, so did their soft skills. When asked about the most important takeaway from the competition, the team unanimously agreed on the opportunity to hone their communication skills, which according to Amy were developed when talking to NGOs, social enterprises, and homeless people. The team had to get familiar with these stakeholders and gain their trust, which proved instrumental to the project: it was due to the trust they developed with the NGOs that they were given ample opportunities to interview the homeless people and ascertain their needs. Angel Chan also mentioned the tact needed when communicating with the homeless, noting that how they were addressed, “homeless person” (露宿者) or “fellow neighbor” (街坊), dictated whether a dialogue could be started.
The competition also introduced the team to a multitude of practical concerns when jumpstarting a social project, such as budget and time management matters. The most pertinent of all, however, were managing their expectations and dealing with the issue of scalability. The first competition workshop helped Angel Chan realize that their original draft was too broad in scope and unachievable. A self-professed idealist, Amy learned that they had to tailor their ambitions and develop their project pragmatically by starting small and factoring in scaling up in their future plans.
At this juncture, the team mentioned how their assigned legal mentors, Ray Wong from Kirkland & Ellis, Clarissa Watt and Chloe Chan from King & Wood Mallesons, and Brian Wong from the DFS Group, played a crucial role in navigating these practical concerns and orienting the focus of Project Homecoming. “I was inspired by the professionalism of the legal mentors,” Angel Lau remarked. “Throughout the proposal drafting phase, our mentors also motivated us to be more grounded and learn about the needs of the homeless from their perspective, instead of only using possibly biased secondary sources.” “Our mentors supported and guided us from the formulation of the project concept to the pitching stage,” said Candace. “They introduced us to NGOs, which in turn connected us with the homeless. Prior to the pitching, they even arranged a rehearsal session at their office for us and gave us comments and suggestions on how to explain our project to the judges.”
Following their success in the competition, Project Homecoming is actively working towards the future. To carry out Phase 1, the team is currently reaching out to NGOs who work with the homeless community for partnerships regarding suitable locker spaces. Posters advertising their free legal consultation scheme are also in the pipeline, to be distributed to the homeless people directly and through NGOs once Phase 1 is properly set up.
The team has the following advice for law students looking to start their social projects. “Get your inspiration from everyday events, and think about how law students are uniquely positioned to help in particular social issues,” Jason said. Angel Chan mentioned the importance of motivation: “Work on a project that serves a target group you are truly passionate about. Be prepared for disappointments and misunderstandings along the way, but with enough passion and motivation, you can withstand these challenges and pull through.”
One piece of advice, in particular, was echoed by each team member, which spoke to the core of Project Homecoming: have empathy. In Jason’s words, “You have to think about issues from their perspective, instead of bluntly asking them ‘what their legal needs are.’ The focus should be on what your target group wants, instead of what you want to do.” Angel Lau stressed the difference between empathy and sympathy, the latter of which does little to solve the problem: “only with empathy can one learn first-hand what others are going through.”
Indeed, in these trying times, empathy towards our community is in great demand. Project Homecoming shows how we, as members of the community, can bond together in the face of these hardships with empathy. Only with empathy can we pierce the silence and listen to voices unheard.