SINGAPORE: The Social and Family Development Ministry (MSF) has identified more than 900 displaced individuals and families between 2013 and 2015.
While East Coast Park is where many Singaporeans go to unwind after work, it is also a temporary home for a small group of people.
Some occupants have made homes out of the makeshift tents dotting the park. Some Channel NewsAsia spoke with said they are waiting to be allocated housing, like HDB rental flats, and have no place to stay.
However, while they say nobody wants to live in these conditions, they refuse to stay in shelters as they don’t want to give up their independence and privacy. That doesn't mean they are not constantly afraid that authorities will fine them for camping illegally.
Campers at East Coast, Pasir Ris and West Coast Parks must apply for a National Parks Board permit. The permit is free, but applicants can camp for only four days a month. Those who flout the rules can be fined to up to S$2,000.
The homeless also set up makeshift beds at other public spaces like streets and shopfronts. Those who try to help them first check if they have family who can lend a hand.
“I've seen cases that come before me, to ask for rental flats for example,” said Mr Seah Kian Peng, Government Parliamentary Chair for Social and Family Development. “In some cases, our first line is always to make sure that you have no alternatives. In genuine cases, we certainly have to step in and make sure that they have a roof over their heads.”
The MP refers people who genuinely need help to the relevant authorities.
For families, the Social and Family Development Ministry could place them in transitional shelters, which they may have to share with others. Individuals are put up in temporary accommodation, where they get meals, medical help and job referrals.
GOING THROUGH THE RIGHT CHANNELS
Between 2013 and 2015, the ministry has helped 543 individuals and 374 families. Around 80 per cent had low income and weak social support. One out of four lived with family members or friends, but fell out with them because of behavioural or addiction-related issues, among others.
The remaining three-quarters were previously flat owners, but sold their homes due to reasons, such as divorce or debt, and could not afford to buy or rent another flat.
This was the case for Mr Jamal and his wife Madam Jamilah. The couple, who have two sons aged 10 and 15, sold their home four years ago, after Mr Jamal was retrenched and could not pay the S$1,600 monthly instalments.
He had planned to downsize to a smaller flat, but he said he was cheated by a property agent, and ended up with less than what he had bargained for.
They rented accommodation in Johor Bahru as it was cheaper and commuted to Singapore, but their savings and the wages from Mr Jamal's new job as a security guard were being depleted to pay for necessities.
The couple took the initiative to seek help from a Family Service Centre in Bedok, and were eventually referred to a shelter in Bukit Merah run by Lakeside Family Services, where they have been staying since September 2015.
“My personal stance is: Family is very important,” said Mr Jamal. “My children and my family are the most important. So why do we have to be embarrassed to ask for help? Living in a tent is much more uncomfortable. So we looked for the right channel. We don’t have to be embarrassed. We’re not doing anything wrong. If we don’t look for help, we won’t know that there are many avenues in Singapore for us to get help.”
The couple said the family is adjusting well and a sense of normalcy has returned to their lives. However, ultimately, Mr Jamal's goal is to have a home that his family can call their own.
"We felt like we were outcasts and homeless,” he said. “We shuttle here and there, and in front of us, sure, people won't say much, but they'll ask, why did you sell your house? Where did the money go? And now you're left without a home, and have to take shelter here and there. But that's just how people are and we cannot take their words to us, because the fault also lies with us.
“I want, if possible, I need a home. If I die, at least my children and wife do not sleep on the streets. That’s my priority. If we get a home in the future, we will be more careful.”
SECURING LONG-TERM HOUSING
To help families like Mr Jamal's secure long-term housing, the Lakeside Families-In-Transition programme - started in 2009, which runs the shelter - works with community groups and the Government.
Currently, it has seven case workers handling about 10 to 14 cases each.
“That would be our goal - to help them work towards home ownership,” said Mr Willie Chien, a senior counsellor at Lakeside Family Services. “Before a family is discharged, we actually will want to ascertain this family has the ability to pay rental. They have to be in stable employment for quite a while before HDB considers granting them a rental unit. We will also contact the family during the first three months of their discharge to check with them, how they are doing, are they able to cope with life after shelter. If they do have a particular issue, then we will try to address that issue.”
Mr Chien said 10 to 15 per cent of the families at the shelter find it hard to get a permanent home because they are unable to earn a stable income, among other issues. However, he has not seen a single return case since he started his job five years ago.
“We also run a host of other support programmes for the entire family,” said Mr Chien. “The idea is that when they are discharged from the shelter, we hope that they would be able to regain confidence as they work towards independence."
FOR THOSE WHO REJECT HELP
But for the group who reject help and prefer to be self-reliant, sociology professor Paulin Straughan said it's important to find out what can be done to meet their needs.
“So if that’s the case, then it’s important for us to address this,” said Associate Professor Paulin Straughan, vice dean of international relations and special duties at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
“These are the helplines available. These are the housing options that we have. And yet, we still have a significant proportion of people without homes who are not willing to step forward to receive help. Why is that so? Is it because the help is packaged in a manner that requires the recipient to give up something important to them, for example, their sense of independent living, to be their own person?
“We have to learn from them. If we want to help them, we have to learn from them and cannot assume that we can prescribe.”
Assoc Prof Straughan also outlined three broad areas of intervention.
First, is to understand what drives a person out on to the streets, and to check if Singapore's safety nets are able to capture their needs. Secondly, is to tailor the help in a way that's acceptable to those who are affected. And lastly, to work the ground and engage them in meaningful conversation, so they know who to reach out to for assistance.
MSF, on its part, said it will continue to work with its partners to monitor and help this vulnerable group of people. MSF added that the public should refer those they know who need help to the nearest Social Service Centre or Family Service Centre, so they can receive the appropriate assistance.