1,000 street homeless found in Singapore, most in downtown area: nationwide study

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
A man sleeps near the entrance of an MRT station in Singapore. (Reuters file photo)

SINGAPORE — About 1,000 people live on the streets of Singapore, with the highest numbers reported in the city area, Bedok and Kallang, results from a first-of-its-kind nationwide study showed.

Most of them are men in their 50s or older and hold jobs. A large proportion has slept rough on the streets for years, typically at void decks and commercial buildings.

Findings from the 52-paged report, unveiled at a public seminar held at National University of Singapore Faculty of Law on Friday (8 November), also showed that while there were more homeless people spotted in larger and older housing estates as well as those with a higher concentration of rental flats, they were unevenly distributed across Singapore.

The largest numbers were reported in the downtown area with over 240 individuals spotted, followed by over 50 in Bedok and Kallang. Fewer than 10 were found in districts such as Queenstown, Punggol, Bukit Panjang, and Sembawang.

No homeless persons were encountered in Sengkang during a particular night of observation.

“Despite growing public attention in recent years, the size of the homeless population in Singapore has always been unknown. Measuring homelessness in a systematic and transparent way enables us to provide guidance for policy and service planning,” said Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe, who led the study.

The study is not his first attempt: In March 2017, a point-in-time street count which he was part of, uncovered 180 homeless persons over a five-hour period.

Such street counts should be conducted every few years here to provide timely guidance for policy and service planning, said Prof Ng, adding that more access to data should be given to researchers to conduct more comprehensive studies.

This latest endeavour saw about 500 volunteer fieldworkers who covered 12,000 blocks of residential flats as well as public facilities and commercial spaces over several months this year.

They included representatives from more than 20 non-governmental organisations, such as the Catholic Welfare Services and the Homeless Hearts of Singapore, as well as individual members of the public.

The study was conducted using two count strategies: a cumulative street count that took place over three months and a single night count in July, both no earlier than 11.30pm. These exercises are undertaken regularly in places like the US and the UK to monitor the homeless populations.

The two counts found that there were between 921 and 1,050 street homeless people in Singapore, over 80 per cent of whom were observed to be men, with about 100 women spotted.

Many of them were described as presentable, with fewer noted as appearing untidy or without a shirt.

Volunteers also noted that a third was observed to be in their 20s to 40s, with six thought to be below 20.

(SOURCE: Homeless in Singapore report by Prof Ng Kok Hoe, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS)
For the study, the map of Singapore was divided into 298 zones grouped into 25 districts. (SOURCE: Homeless in Singapore report by Prof Ng Kok Hoe, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS)

Reasons for homelessness

Of those approached by volunteers, 88 homeless persons, about half of those who were awake, answered questions on their personal particulars, such as race, citizenship, educational background and homeownership.

Interviewees ranged from 20 to 78 years old. Around 26 reported being separated, divorced, or widowed, and 30 said they were single.

36 and 31 of them reported having secondary school and primary school qualifications respectively, while only two indicated that they had completed university education.

About 30 said that they have slept outside for six years or longer, with four reporting being homeless for more than 20 years.

While about 35 of them said that they had a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in their name, with a majority public rental flats, they cited issues such as family conflict, problems getting along with co-tenants or not wanting to inconvenience friends as reasons why they did not choose to stay in a safer place.

60 per cent interviewed were employed, typically working as cleaners (27 per cent) or held odd jobs (15 per cent). Fewer than half of them were paid monthly – for those who were, their wages ranged from $560 to $3,000. For others, weekly pay ranged from $20 to $600, while daily pay ranged from $20 to $75.

While the majority of the 88 interviewees reported not having income from non-work sources, 30 per cent revealed that they received public financial assistance, CPF payouts or assistance from family members ranging from $80 to $570 per month.

25 per cent said they had eaten just one meal that day or none at all.

40 per cent indicated they sought help in the past year, typically from Social Service Offices, Family Service Centres and Members of Parliament.

60 per cent also reported having been approached by public and enforcement agencies in the past year, with the police being the most common, followed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and the National Parks Board.

From left to right: Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe, Catholic Welfare Services programme executive Brian Monteiro and MSF senior director Lee Kim Hua at the public seminar on 8 November, 2019. (PHOTO: Wong Casandra/Yahoo News Singapore)

Room for improvement

“There is room for improvement in the current landscape of public and social services,” said Prof Ng. “Given the concealed nature of homelessness, there is scope to expand outreach services to connect homeless people to housing support.”

An area that is “underdeveloped” here is the availability of overnight shelters, he noted.

Improvements can also be made to the eligibility criteria and space provisions of the HDB public rental housing scheme, Prof Ng said. For instance, he suggested for the joint tenancy requirement to be removed.

“Removing (it) as an immediate step will not only improve this exit path from homelessness but will also help to realise basic standards of privacy for the poorest residents in the public housing sector,” he added.

Prof Ng also said that the Destitute Persons Act “seems out of step with homeless people’s needs in contemporary Singapore” and called for its revision. The Act does not make specific reference to homelessness.

Under the Act, a person begging in a public place who might likely to cause annoyance to others frequenting the place or otherwise create a nuisance, or a person in a public place who has "no visible means of subsistence or place of residence" is defined as being destitute.

This person may be required by the MSF director of social welfare to stay in a home if he is found to have no place to stay or no means to support himself.

“The possibility of involuntary admission casts a shadow even on homeless people who cannot be considered destitute, causing anxiety when they encounter officers from public agencies and suspicion towards outreach workers,” said Prof Ng.

“It can prevent people from getting the help they need.”

MSF senior director Lee Kim Hua stressed that the Act is used as the “last resort in rare cases” when an individual’s safety is at risk if help is not given.

The ministry is also working with its partners to set a gender-neutral interim shelter for rough sleepers, with more details available next year. The MSF currently funds three transitional shelters providing short-term accommodation for the homeless, four crisis shelters catering to women and children displaced by family violence, as well as 11 welfare homes providing long-term care for individuals who are unable to care for themselves and lack family support.

However, Lee noted that factors leading the individual to sleep rough on the streets are often complex and are not “as straightforward as giving each of them a flat”.

Describing the finding that six in 10 have not sought help from social services and government agencies as a “very high percentage”, he added, “It shows that what we have been doing the past year or so is really necessary, to work with the community groups who will go out to look for these people, build trust and bring us in to work together with them to offer help.”

In response to Prof Ng’s report, the MSF said that it has partnered community groups and government agencies to reach out to and assist homeless people and rough sleepers over the last two years.

For instance, the PEERS (Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers) Network – launched in July – currently includes 26 agencies such as Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the Housing and Development Board, and Masjid Sultan.

The ministry also highlighted the efforts by partners who have opened up their premises as SafeSoundSleeping Places (S3Ps).

“S3Ps provide safe accommodation for homeless people and rough sleepers to rest during the night, and makes it easier for government and social service agencies to engage them in a timely manner. These community options complement existing shelters and residential homes,” it added.

During Parliament in May, the MSF said it provided assistance and support to an average of about 290 individuals who were homeless, destitute or sleeping in public places per year between 2016 and 2018.

Members of the public who wish to play a part in helping homeless individuals can call the ComCare hotline at 1800 222 0000, or refer them to the nearest Social Service Office or Family Service Centre for assistance.

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