ANHUI, East China — It’s midnight, but Yan Zhaofeng is still watching people pass through the store, browsing shelves full of books she can’t read. She is too guarded to sleep, as everything she owns is here: a black canvas bag containing two pairs of pants and one shirt, a thermos she found, two tattered towels, and a cup of instant noodles she got from a generous eatery owner last week.
For six months, 64-year-old Yan has been spending her nights this way at Xinhua Bookstore, the first 24-hour bookstore in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province. Located at Sanxiaokou, the intersection of two busy roads in the old part of the city, the bookstore has not turned off its lights in two years.
During the day, office workers and students come to read and buy books, attend cultural activities, or just take a break from the heady bustle of the city. After 11 p.m., when most customers have left, the bookstore becomes another world: Night owls, shift workers, and wanderers of all sorts drift through the doors in search of a clean, safe, and free overnight sanctuary. Some are homeless, while others just find the store a more appealing option than their own cramped abodes.
Yan has been homeless for a year. She has no money, no job, and no acquaintances in Hefei. “I don’t even know the time,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I just come when it gets dark and leave when it gets bright.”
Before she found the bookstore, Yan usually slept in front of stores, on the curb, and sometimes in parks. Often, she would be woken up and told by patrolling police or security guards to go away or go home. She avoids authority figures for fear of being forced to return to her hometown of Suzhou, Anhui, about 250 kilometers away, though she is reluctant to explain why, giving conflicting accounts between sobs.
Yan is also unwilling to go to government-run shelters. “They won’t let me stay for long, and I don’t want to be sent back,” Yan says.
China has more than 2,000 temporary shelters that have assisted more than 3.7 million homeless people, according to a 2014 report from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. However, temporary shelters only allow a maximum stay of 10 days.
Additionally, many homeless people do not qualify for assistance, as shelters only accept those who have neither the capacity to work nor any relatives they can call on for help. Shelters also exclude those who receive social security benefits: For city dwellers, this means a minimum income allowance, while rural residents receive the “five guarantees” of food, clothing, housing, health care, and a proper burial. The monthly social security allowance in Hefei was just 579 yuan ($86) as of July 1, according to the Hefei Evening News. The minimum wage in the city, on the other hand, is 1,520 yuan a month, and the average monthly salary was 5,701 yuan in 2016 for employees in non-private entities.
Yan Zhaofeng wipes away tears as she shares her background at Xinhua Bookstore in Hefei, Anhui province, July 15, 2017. Guo Quanzhi/Sixth Tone
Before new welfare measures on vagrants and beggars came into effect in 2013, China had operated under a so-called custody and repatriation system for 20 years. Those who could not show a residence permit or temporary living permit would be detained and sent back to their place of residence according to their hukou, or household registration — even though they rarely had anything to return to.
While on paper, repatriation is no longer part of government policy, in practice, beggars are sometimes still detained and pressured to return to their registered hometowns.
Yan is cagey and troubled when talking about her background. First, she says she left her hometown after her husband died last year to take care of her adult daughter in Hefei, who had fallen ill. “She passed away on July 18. It’s been a year,” Yan says. Afterward, her son-in-law kicked her out, but she remained in Hefei in hopes that the police would investigate, as she believes her son-in-law poisoned her daughter.
Then, Yan mumbles that she roams the city to find her daughter.
One thing is certain: Yan has no place to go, no health care, and no one to turn for help in the city. She is embarrassed to say she has not had a chance to bathe in quite a while. “I use towels to wipe myself with water in bathrooms,” she says through tears.
In Hefei, police, city management officials, and social workers from government-run shelters patrol train stations, tunnels, pedestrian overpasses, and parks to register the homeless, offer them care packages of necessities, and move them along.
As a result, there are few places homeless people can go to avoid the authorities. Chen Qi, the night shift manager at Xinhua Bookstore, tells Sixth Tone that as long as no one takes off their shoes or disturbs other customers, the bookstore welcomes all. However, after a couple instances of theft, the bookstore now requires all visitors who come after 11 p.m. to register at the entrance with their identification.
“There are about 50 customers every night,” says Zhu Jianmin, the night shift security guard. “About four or five are homeless — more in winter and summer.”
Wang Liying, the police officer in charge of patrolling the district, comes to the bookstore at midnight almost every night as part of his rounds.
“It’s become the calling card of our city now,” Wang says. “Though everyone has the right to learn, and we don’t turn anyone away as long as they do not become a public nuisance, as police we need to ensure the safety and reputation of the bookstore.”
As a record heat wave hit the city this summer, homeless and unemployed guests were not the only ones spending the night at the bookstore.
In the early morning, Zheng Yikang (left) and Li Shading read at Xinhua Bookstore in Hefei, Anhui province, July 15, 2017. Guo Quanzhi/Sixth Tone
Zheng Yikang and Li Shading, originally from two smaller cities in Anhui, came to Hefei two months ago. Though they make about 3,000 yuan every month working as door-to-door salesmen, they have opted not to rent a home in the city. Instead, the pair keep their belongings at their company’s headquarters, shower at public bathhouses, and spend their nights at the bookstore.
“It’s great because we can both read a bit and get some rest before going to work the next day,” Li tells Sixth Tone. “By coming here, we’re also saving a lot of money,” Zheng adds.
Like many Chinese cities, Hefei has developed rapidly thanks to low-wage laborers who flock to fill the city’s factories and construction sites. But hukou issues and skyrocketing property prices have not made the city a welcoming home. Last year, prices of new homes in Hefei rose 48.4 percent — the fastest rate in the world — according to a joint report by the Hurun Research Institute and real estate agency Global House Buyer.
To make housing more affordable, the government has implemented measures such as mortgage subsidies for employees of state-owned enterprises, subsidized loans for homebuyers, and low-rent public housing for low-income urban households. Some private companies offer their employees similar perks.
However, barriers remain, according to Man Yanyun, director of the Peking University-Lincoln Institute Center for Urban Development and Land Policy in Beijing. Government initiatives only target those with hukou in the area, and public or subsidized housing accounts for barely 10 percent of total housing stock on average in urban areas, according to research by professor Man in 2011.
China’s controversial hukou system ties citizens to a particular locale in which they are entitled to social services like health care, education, and housing assistance. The system is designed to control mass urban migration, but it has been criticized as a form of entrenched discrimination that limits social mobility.
Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at Georgia Tech who researches China’s domestic migration restrictions, tells Sixth Tone that the hukou system fundamentally affects both the migrant working poor and the homeless, as they become second-class citizens compared with local hukou holders.
“The key challenge today is how to integrate homeless urbanites into the local society and grant them full citizen rights without causing too much disturbance to the local communities,” he says.
Even for those lucky enough to have a Hefei hukou, like 54-year-old Wang Xiang, finding affordable housing can be a struggle. Wang Xiang, his wife, and their daughter share a 20-square-meter studio apartment — all he can afford on his 2,000-yuan monthly salary. He comes to the bookstore to ease the squeeze on their small flat in the sweltering summer heat.
An exterior view of Xinhua Bookstore in Hefei, Anhui province, July 14, 2017. Guo Quanzhi/Sixth Tone
“I can’t really fall asleep here,” Wang Xiang grimaces, pointing to his legs, which he can barely stretch out all the way in the bookstore’s narrow seating area. “But it’s still good. We don’t have air conditioning, and these last few weeks have been over 40 degrees [Celsius], so I won’t fall asleep at home either.”
There is an enormous and ever-growing demand for affordable housing in China. In 2016, there were around 281 million migrant workers in the nation, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. With the State Council, China’s cabinet, aiming to boost the country’s urban population by 100 million new residents over the next five years, the need to provide more housing and other social services is becoming increasingly acute.
Despite the challenges he faces, Li has no plans to leave Hefei. “There are more opportunities and so much development here,” he says, staring into the night. Next to the bookstore, a subway station is under construction, slated to open in October.
“But no matter how welcoming an evening escape is here,” Li says, referring to the bookstore, “having a home is always better.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that there were 28,000 migrant workers in China in 2016. There were 281 million.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Yan Zhaofeng sits beside her belongings at Xinhua Bookstore in Hefei, Anhui province, July 15, 2017. Guo Quanzhi/Sixth Tone)