SINGAPORE: Nearly 300 people have come forward to seek shelter and assistance during the "circuit breaker" period, including those affected by travel restrictions, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee on Monday (May 4).
Mr Lee was responding to questions in Parliament from Members of Parliament Gan Thiam Poh, Murali Pillai and Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong.
“We have seen an increase in the number of people seeking shelter over the past month. When the PEERS Network was formed in July 2019, less than half of the 65 people engaged were willing to accept help,” Mr Lee added.
The PEERS Network stands for Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers Network and is made up of government agencies, social service agencies and ground-up community groups.
MSF has also been working closely with frontline agencies such as the Singapore Police Force and NParks to refer homeless people and rough sleepers to shelters, Social Service Offices, and relevant agencies for financial assistance.
“Those who are homeless will not face penalties under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Regulations 2020, if they are assisted by us,” Mr Lee added.
Responding to Mr Pillai’s question on whether there are sufficient places in shelters to house rough sleepers, the minister said that MSF is working together with existing and new PEERS partners to offer their premises as Safe Sound Sleeping Places, or S3Ps.
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The number of organisations operating S3Ps has increased from 8 to 35 and in total they will be able to accommodate about 700 rough sleepers, with about 400 spaces currently available.
“Since the start of the Circuit Breaker, our PEERS S3Ps have expanded both capacity and operating hours to keep our friends indoors as much as possible. They have allowed their homeless guests to remain in the S3Ps throughout the day time and provided them meals.”
Some of these new S3Ps include the Singapore Anglican Community Services, Kassim Mosque, Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church, Assyakirin Mosque and Tao One Ltd.
“HDB has also provided vacant rental flats to our community partners, for them to operate as S3Ps during this crisis," Mr Lee said.
“We have also distributed care packs with hygiene kits and surgical masks to temporary shelter residents, as well as homeless persons in the streets alongside encouraging them to accept shelter.”
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In a supplementary question, Mr Pillai asked about Mr Lee’s assessment of the current situation and what further steps MSF will be taking amid the circuit breaker measures.
“While some have no homes, a number of people actually have homes they cannot return to because of family disputes,” said Mr Lee.
“We’ve reached out to them through our network of partners to bring them into the S3Ps, in order for them to be sheltered and kept safe during the circuit breaker period.
However, there are other homeless individuals who are not yet identified and the PEERS network will continue to reach out and look out for people who are in need of help.
“Safe distancing ambassadors have gone around with the help of social workers to identify people who are out there in the open, not because they refuse to comply but because they have serious underlying issues back home," the minster added.
“The social workers then work with other partners to resolve the issues and find temporary space for them to take respite.”
Mr Lee also stressed that the COVID-19 crisis “reaffirmed the importance of close collaboration between government agencies and community partners”.
“Our aim is not only to keep homeless people and rough sleepers safe during the COVID-19 outbreak, but to help them resolve their underlying challenges and get back on their feet beyond this period.”
HELP FOR HOMELESS BEYOND COVID-19
Member of Parliament Louis Ng asked in a supplementary question if there are future plans for housing the homeless post-COVID-19, after places of worship return to their “usual function”.
“Many of the homeless individuals are seeking shelter at places of worship as they are empty at this point of time,” Mr Ng said.
A number of the S3P partners in the PEERS network are prepared to provide these spaces and “commitment” beyond the circuit breaker, said Mr Lee.
“In fact, even prior to circuit breaker, a number of our partners, both religious and secular organisations, have set aside space as a shelter.”
However, Mr Lee acknowledged that some partners may not have space available after the circuit breaker measures ease off.
“We will continue to establish transitional shelters spaces, as well as spaces in S3Ps to support them. The key is to work with (the homeless) to resolve underlying social, family and personal circumstances, in order for them to return home and find permanent shelter.”