Mar 21, 2017 06:31 PM

Police Investigate Guangdong Homeless Shelter Deaths

(Beijing) — Police have detained four employees at a private homeless shelter in the southern city of Shaoguan, after 21 inmates including a 15-year old autistic boy were reported to have died at the facility between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18.

Local authorities in Shaoguan and Xinfeng county in Guangdong province that had sub-contracted the private facility to care for the homeless said they had launched an investigation into the cause of the deaths in a statement on Monday.

According to the Shaoguan city government, the local civil affairs authority had ordered the private facility to close earlier this month for failing to meet government care center standards and had transferred nearly 700 homeless people to other government-affiliated shelters. The public acknowledgement of the deaths by authorities came after an exposé by The Beijing News on Monday triggered an internet storm, with many commentators expressing shock at the negligence of government care workers linked to the case.

The newspaper reported that 15-year old Lei Wenfeng had died of typhoid fever in hospital one and a half months after he was sent to the Lianxi Care Center, a privately-run homeless shelter in Shaoguan.

Wengfeng had gone missing from his home in Shenzhen, where he lived with his father on Aug. 8, 2016. He was picked up by police in the nearby industrial hub of Dongguan on Aug. 15 and sent to a local shelter run by the civil affairs department.

But staff at the overcrowded Dongguan shelter failed to register the boy with the national missing person’s database before transferring him to the private care facility in Shaoguan on Oct. 19, according to The Beijing News. Wenfeng’s father had already registered the boy’s disappearance with the national system for missing persons in Shenzhen.

Government care workers who were unable to gather sufficient information from the autistic boy had also mistakenly registered Wenfeng’s age as 25 years before the transfer, given that he had a sun-tanned complexion and a beard, The Beijing News said. This careless handling of his case meant that Wenfeng was forced to share a crammed dormitory with adults, and was not eligible for the special care given to minors.

“The civil affairs department should be held responsible for Wenfeng's death because the incident exposed government failure to properly oversee private facilities,” said Xiang Yan, a law professor at Wuhan University in Hubei province.

There is no evidence that the boy was mistreated, but his father Lei Hongjian who finally tracked Wenfeng down nine days after his death said the boy’s body was so lean that he could barely recognize his son.

The private facility was also contracted by government-affiliated shelters in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Huizhou.

An employee at the government-run shelter in Dongguan told Caixin that there were no routine inspections of private facilities like the Lianxi Care Center, which was located in a rural county 178 kilometers away from downtown Dongguan.

“There might be an inspection once every one to three months if someone happens to pass the area while on a business trip,” said the employee who asked not to be named.

The lack of oversight has led to several incidents of abuse in China’s homeless shelters in the past. Damning photos taken by volunteers who visited a government-sponsored facility in Gushi county, Henan province in 2014 showed mentally disabled children being tied to a tree and other charges forced to sleep in filth. Last April, state-run People’s Daily reported that a mentally retarded boy from Henan who went missing had allegedly starved to death at a rescue shelter.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (

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