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Fresh start for Singapore’s homeless

The shelter is operated out of a handful of units spread out across a HDB block. These units are where the shelter residents stay until they find a more permanent housing arrangement

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When one thinks of Singapore, one does not think of homelessness or people who do not have a roof over their heads. But they exist. They’re just “invisible.”

Displaced individuals

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has provided assistance to an average of approximately 290 displaced individuals annually between 2016 and 2018.

Most of them have no place to live in while others may have a home but for several reasons cannot return home.

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The ‘Shelter’

Along the peaceful Jalan Kukoh neighbourhood, there is a shelter managed by New Hope Community Services and is funded by MSF. It offers a temporary abode for displaced people so that they can pick themselves up, be it through finding a job or a permanent place for them to stay.

New Hope is part of a collaborative network that brings together community groups, many of whom were already working on the ground, with MSF and other government and social service agencies to reach out to and support the homeless.

The network is named PEERS which stands for Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers and was officially launched by MSF in July 2019.

The shelter is operated out of a handful of units spread out across an HDB block. These units are where the shelter residents stay until they find more permanent housing arrangements.

For many residents, this can mean anywhere between six to nine months.

Inside New Hope

The residents lead a spartan life inside New Hope. The living room of one unit has no television or sofa set. But it has a table, a chair, and an ironing board.

Residents sleep on bunk beds and share a small kitchen and a common toilet. If they need to store their belongings, personal metal lockers are available.

While the place may be too crammed for many of them, it is a better option compared to sleeping out on the streets. At New Hope, residents can achieve some form of normalcy in their lives.

The “Residents”

Among the residents is a 63-year-old who didn’t want to be a burden to his daughter. He has been living in the shelter for about three months now. The man talks slowly, and has writing difficulties, not because of his age, but because he is a two-time stroke survivor.

Another resident, a 35-year-old woman, agrees that living at the shelter is preferable to being out in the streets.

“In the streets, you have to look out for public toilets to shower, and keep your things in safes, and places to charge your phone.”

She initially stayed with her uncle since 2008, after her parents passed away, but he kicked her out after she failed to pay rent for an entire year.

It’s not that she didn’t want to pay, though. Rather, she explains that she cannot hold down a steady job because of her health.

“I have epilepsy and type 1 diabetes,” she reveals.

Second chances at life

Many shelter residents cannot qualify for public housing through common channels, that’s where social workers at the shelter come in to help them.

Social worker Peck Sian tells me that it can be a challenge to work out a concrete and sustainable plan with residents, especially those whose situation is complicated by issues such as family disputes and citizenship. In view of this, social workers meet regularly with HDB officers to discuss housing options for the residents.

“Many of these people have been through multiple rejections by the system so they have negative experiences, and it’s very hard to engage them to get them to trust you again,” she says, adding that it takes a lot of time and patience before they are willing to work with caseworkers.

But it is worth it, says Peck Sian, when the residents finally secure a place they can call their own.

“When you see them moving in, they are so happy getting the place done, buying things for themselves, you realise that it’s good to have journeyed with them.

One success story is from a former resident who managed to rent a one-room flat after living at the shelter for four months. A former freelance tailor shuttling between Singapore and Batam, he married an Indonesian lady and has two sons with her.

Then he was diagnosed with third stage colon cancer. One and a half years later, his tailoring business failed. His life went in shambles. Faced with mounting medical bills and no income, his wife kicked him out of their home in Batam.

“My wife didn’t want me because I didn’t have money anymore,” he says in Mandarin and English, “No income mah, how to support my children?”

Left with nothing, he went back to Singapore where he found work as a cleaner, but it was short lived. Why? Rolling up his pants, he reveals an ugly patch of mottled skin on his shin — he has psoriasis — an autoimmune disease that manifests in skin abnormalities. People became scared of him.

With no home to call his own, he spent his nights sleeping rough at Kreta Ayer Square. There were days, he says, that he would go without showering. It was very uncomfortable. For his meals, he would survive on free food offered by Chinese temples.

He was admitted to New Hope in May this year, after being engaged and offered help by volunteers on a night walk.

“It’s better here. Over at Chinatown, whenever it rained, it’s over. I was lucky not to fall sick from being drenched,“ he says. Gary is still legally married, but wanted to rent a HDB flat as a single because he is estranged from his family.

Gary’s social worker, Peck Sian, worked with HDB to secure him a flat under the Joint Singles Scheme. Less than two months after submitting his application and documents, he moved into a rental flat with a fellow coffee shop regular.

“New Hope is very helpful. They’re really good. They help people like us who have no hope,” he said.

He now has a stable job as a cleaner working at Great World City, which earns him S$45 a day. It’s not much, but he receives cash on a daily basis which helps him with his day-to-day needs.

Homelessness in Singapore

A 2017 survey conducted by volunteers of welfare organisation Montfort Care and volunteer group SW101, there are over 180 homeless individuals sleeping outdoors across 25 locations in the Lion City. The same survey also demystified certain conclusions and stereotypes of homeless people in Singapore as being lazy or crazy given that two-thirds of these homeless people had a job and more than a quarter had a flat to their name.

Reasons behind and risks 

People might be in this situation because of several reasons — disagreements with their landlord, poorly managed finances, familial and spousal issues, unemployment, becoming victims of cheating or fraud, or simply because they do not understand their legal rights. One will also note that a majority of persons in such a situation tend to be of old age and/or are not as educated.

While it is not a crime to be homeless, many homeless individuals may find themselves in a precarious situation, as many often have to resort to begging to earn an income. This might pose an issue as under the Destitute Person Act, as habitual beggars who cause a “nuisance” in a public space may be penalised with a fine of S$3,000 or imprisonment for up to 2 years.

Hope for the hopeless

Those who have exhausted all other means of accommodation and are not eligible for Housing and Development Board (HDB) options can apply for temporary accommodation at the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s transitional shelters. New Hope is certainly one of those transitional shelters that can provide hope for the hopeless. -/TISG

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