By Anthea Ong
Homelessness can look like two elderly men shuffling into a void deck after 10pm, carrying what seems to be their life’s possessions in plastic bags. Two policemen on night patrol came, saw them, said “Hello uncles” and left them to be. I was there.
The homeless may also take the form of a Chinese lady in her late 40s. To make a living, she sells the recycled cardboard that she collects, and occasionally accepts the food distributed by the Soup Kitchen Project when she does not make enough in the day to cover her meal costs. When she does make enough, she asks for free food to be given to someone else. I was the one who gave her the food that evening that she didn’t need.
And how about Mariam, who attended my inclusive yoga class years back at a welfare organisation in Shunfu? Fleeing from her abusive husband after 18 years, she was too afraid to go back to the flat even after obtaining a Domestic Exclusion Order. With her two children, she stayed in a shelter, although its strict hours meant that she occasionally ended up sleeping rough after her long work hours as a night-time security guard. I was trying to support Mariam - not always knowing what to do - for almost two years.
Suffice to say, these experiences dispelled many misconceptions I had of homeless people and homelessness. For one, they are often not homeless due to them being “lazy” or not having a job. Some even have houses registered under their names but are unwilling or unable to live there - they could be getting a divorce or being estranged from their family members among various reasons.
Their personal accounts underscore that homelessness is not so neatly and conveniently attributable to just structural or personal agency issues. It is a complex issue that intersects with other social issues such as inequality, mental health, domestic abuse, and financial insecurity.
In 2017, a volunteer welfare organisation, Montfort Care, and volunteer group SW101 did a street survey to profile the homeless in Singapore. In one night alone, the group counted 180 persons. Since it was not a nationwide count, this number was “likely to underestimate the actual extent of homelessness in Singapore”, according to Dr Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
The more troubling reality is that among those surveyed in 2017, none had sought help from shelters while only a fifth had sought help in general. One-third of those surveyed had been sleeping in public places over the last one to five years, and 27 per cent have been living on the streets for over five years.
In May, Minister for Social and Family Development, Desmond Lee, shared in response to my parliamentary question, that his Ministry had provided assistance to about 290 individuals on average per year who were homeless, destitute or sleeping in public places between 2016 and 2018 through the three Transitional Shelters and 11 Welfare Homes.
The image of the homeless seems incongruent with Singapore’s pristine image. Every night, there could be hundreds of people sleeping rough even as so many of us in the country are having a good night’s rest in the safety of our homes.
We must eradicate homelessness instead of just managing it. We must adopt a comprehensive approach to fulfill the housing and social security needs of fellow citizens who have fallen through the cracks of our current social support and housing schemes.
It must be a whole-of-government priority to protect every Singaporean’s right to a home. An inter-agency taskforce could be established to facilitate policy-making across ministries and create long-term solutions. For example, can the HDB explore a “fast track” public rental policy for the homeless? This would enable the homeless to secure shelter first before the relevant agencies can help them to stabilise their situation.
This taskforce should also review the Destitute Persons Act with the aim of de-stigmatising the homeless. The Act currently makes it illegal to sleep rough in Singapore, and people found doing so could be sent to one of the temporary welfare homes. It may be a reason why many homeless persons do not seek help for fear of punitive consequences.
We must also urge the private sector to be part of the solution for homelessness. Businesses can partner social services and enable the homeless to improve their situation in various ways, such as giving them training or meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities.
I am urging all-round efforts from the society at large. The onus cannot be on the homeless - the rest of us must endeavour to do our part in eradicating homelessness. Only then can we call Singapore home, truly, for all.
Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, a social entrepreneur and founder of Hush TeaBar and A Good Space, and author of 50 Shades of Love.