‘Singaporean or Malaysian, they’re people’: How shelter volunteers rallied to help workers sleeping rough
Barely opened and ready, Transit Point @ Margaret Drive stepped up – with the help of hundreds of volunteers – to shelter those left out in the cold after Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown measures
SINGAPORE: Sam slumped in defeat on a bench near Kranji MRT station. The 43-year-old had come to Singapore on the eve of Malaysia’s Mar 18 lockdown, with the promise of a job at a vegetable wholesale centre in Woodlands and accommodation provided.
Four days later, he was jobless – and without a roof. He couldn’t simply head back to his lodgings in Johor, nor return to his wife and two toddlers who lived eight hours away by car in Penang.
The Malaysian claims he was made to work overtime without extra pay, and when he asked about his work permit, his boss shrugged him off. “He just said one thing - if you cannot, then don’t work.”
That’s how Sam ended up at Kranji. “I really had no place to go because I don’t know anyone here. So I thought, just sit around until my next job interview,” he said.
Then, a few kind strangers approached him. Would he like a place to stay? asked the volunteers. For the next three nights, Sam found safe harbour at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive.
The new shelter for the homeless, by New Hope Community Services (NHCS), had been running for about a week to iron out processes, and was barely furnished when the lockdown in Malaysia was announced.
The very day after the lockdown took effect, the charity worked with several churches under the LoveSingapore umbrella to devise a plan to “quickly bring the shelter up to speed”, said Lilian Ong, 44, director of social services at NHCS.
That meant getting the plumbing and electricity throughout the 1,700 square-metre space up and running immediately, and calling urgently for donations and volunteers.
In a matter of hours, the ‘Home Away From Home’ initiative was rolled out – and about 250 volunteers responded to the call for befrienders, food handlers and housekeepers.
The next day, donations such as mattresses, fans, toiletries, food - even a television - started pouring in from the public, community partners and corporations.
PROVIDING A HOME AWAY FROM HOME
On Mar 19, volunteers began “contact canvassing”, fanning out across Singapore to approach people sleeping at parks, HDB void decks and train stations, among other public spaces, to link them up with temporary shelters like Transit Point.
“Whenever the volunteers saw anyone sleeping out in the open, they would just extend the invitation. After that, social workers would interact with them to understand their situation,” said Lilian. The NHCS is part of the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs’ (PEERS) Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers) Network.
“It’s no matter whether they’re Singaporean or Malaysian. They’re people, so we have to help them,” added Lim Kim Tat, 46, an operations executive at the charity.
Over five nights, volunteers rounded up more than 40 people who were not just Malaysian workers but also Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, most of whom had been affected by the lockdown.
“They could be Singaporeans working here who have bought or rented a place in Johor or Batam and cannot go home for now,” Lilian explained.
Malaysians both with and without work permits were given shelter for the night, while social workers later worked with them to figure out alternative accommodation.
“Everyone was in a frenzy those first few nights. The priority was just to find a roof over their head,” said Lilian.
Most employers in Singapore, with the help of state agencies, managed to accommodate their Malaysian workers. But some who ended up at the shelter “initially didn’t know they could turn to their employers for help, and we encouraged them to do so.
"In other cases, employers approached us to assist their workers after learning they were living here.”
The team of volunteers continued their efforts until Mar 23. As of Apr 1, the shelter was at nearly full capacity, housing 58 beneficiaries in dedicated male and female spaces. About half of them are Malaysians.
WHO ARE THE AFFECTED MALAYSIANS?
When CNA Insider visited the shelter on Mar 25, there were around 10 beneficiaries spotted in the common areas and some 20 in the evening, when most returned from work.
Among them was Azmi, 23, who works as a kitchen helper. He usually commutes to Singapore daily from Johor Bahru.
Just five months on the job, Azmi decided to stay in Singapore to avoid losing his position. Finding accommodation within his budget was a challenge. “I tried to look for a hostel but most of them with reasonable prices were fully booked on the day,” he said, referring to the morning of Mar 17 when he arrived in Singapore with his packed bags.
He was looking for hostels priced at around S$17 a night. A check with 10 hostels on Mar 27 found that their rates ranged from S$14 to S$69; the average was S$38.
Asked if his employers had helped him look for accommodation, Azmi said he did not want them to know that he was commuting from JB.
James, 39, who works as a masseuse, also found accommodation to be too expensive. Usually, he’d stay in Singapore for a few days either at his workplace, which opens for 24 hours, or in a backpacker hostel. He would return to Johor Bahru when not on shift.
The hostels usually cost S$18 to S$20. But at the moment, it’s increased to S$28 to S$30.
“For a few days here, it’s not very serious," James added. "We can still afford a few dozen dollars. But if it’s an extended period of time, then we can’t take it.”
Still, he told his employers he would take care of his own accommodation. They did not offer to help him, but James attributes this to the bosses being new to running a business.
For a while, he shared a hotel room with Malaysian friends. When they found elsewhere to stay, he slept at the beach for two nights, before police referred him to Transit Point @ Margaret Drive.
“It’s better here. I don’t need to brave the weather and can rest properly,” he said.
Construction workers Mr Saw, 53, and Mr Chong, 58, both Singapore permanent residents, are not company employees and get jobs based on friends’ recommendations. They have been working here for more than 30 years and commute from JB. Prior to the lockdown, they’d rushed to Singapore to continue the projects they were working on.
“You earn based on how much you work. I can’t just wait at home,” said Mr Chong, whose wife now lives alone in their Johor apartment.
For two nights, the two slept at their respective construction sites, braving “dusty and stuffy” conditions. They later found out online about the temporary shelter set up by MSF at Jurong East Sports Hall.
“When I went there, I was told that they don’t accept PRs. But the people were very helpful and directed me here (to Margaret Drive),” said Mr Chong.
With Malaysia’s lockdown extended for another two weeks, the shelter is prepared to continue its care for as long as the beneficiaries need it, said Lilian.
WHAT HELP LOOKS LIKE
At the shelter, Sam sleeps comfortably on a mattress laid on the floor, alongside six roommates who are all spaced 2 metres apart.
“The Singaporeans I met so far have been surprisingly helpful,” he said. “I told them, since they gave me food and shelter, I will do some work for them.” True to his word, he helped to install fans on the first day of his stay.
Every day at 6.30am, breakfast and befrienders are available at the common area; likewise at 6pm when it’s time for dinner.
At 12pm and 3pm, volunteers from the cleaning crew arrive, prepared to wash sheets, sun mattresses and clean up the compound.
The pantry is fully stocked with toiletries and snacks that Sam can freely help himself to. If he needs a listening ear, pastoral care is available.
These plans were made possible due to the public’s response to Malaysia’s lockdown and the COVID-19 situation, noted Lilian. The shelter’s operations will be reassessed once the situation has stabilised.
For Sam, three days pass quickly, and he manages to secure his work permit and a job at a steel factory. His bosses have even found accommodation for him at Camp Challenge, a campsite that has leased out bed spaces to companies. About 600 people, mostly Malaysians, stay there currently, said Mohd Asharaf Ali, 26, the operations manager.
On his last night at the shelter, Sam says his goodbyes to the volunteers who have quickly become friends. By 5.30am the next morning, he’s out the door.
“My bosses said that the shelter should be reserved for those who really needed it,” Sam says.
Since Transit Point @ Margaret Drive opened its doors, many like Sam have come and gone, as the name of the shelter suggests.
“That’s the whole philosophy of New Hope - to reach out to the homeless, provide help, then right-side them so that they will not be in limbo,” said Lilian.
To volunteer, register at http://bit.ly/lovingroughsleepers. Donations may be dropped off at 51 Margaret Drive between 9am and 7pm.