With locations in more than 100 countries worldwide, McDonald's is universally known for its burgers and fries. But for a growing number of people in Hong Kong, the golden arches have come to mean something very different: shelter.
The heartbreaking plight of "McRefugees" made headlines earlier this year after a middle-age woman was found unresponsive in one outlet of the fast-food chain. It reportedly took hours for other patrons and staff — who are used to seeing people slumped over, asleep on the booths and tables — to realize that she was dead. Now, Hong Kong's previously "invisible" homeless population is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Experts say a major wealth gap and rising rents are fueling a homelessness crisis that has been steadily worsening over the past decade. Government surveys suggest the number of homeless people have more than doubled since 2007, according to The Associated Press.
Professor Wong Hung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has attributed the rise to what he calls the "new homeless" — fairly young, employed people who have turned to sleeping on the streets or in other public spaces because they can't afford an apartment. Some have come to Hong Kong for jobs, leaving their families behind in more affordable places. Many resort to scrounging out makeshift sleeping quarters in restaurants or parks when they're not at work.
"They just sleep near their working site — the cost of travel isn't worthwhile," Wong said in an article published by the university. "And it is not worth renting a flat on Hong Kong side or Kowloon. Maybe half or one-third of their income would go to rent."
With nowhere to go, some of those who are homeless have turned to McDonald's and other fast-food establishments that are open around-the-clock throughout the city. One 2013 survey by an advocacy group found dozens of people sleeping in 24-hour restaurants across the city one night.
A McDonald's representative told the AP earlier this year that its locations "welcome all walks of life to visit our restaurants any time" and that they try to be "accommodating and caring" to all customers, including those who stay for extended periods.
Though the company's rules have allowed a safe space for those in need to get a night's sleep, advocates and policy experts say a broader solution is needed to help get people off the streets.
Click through for photos of Hong Kong's so-called McRefugees.
Captions have been provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.