'You don’t know our pain': Helping the homeless find their way home
Since May 2018, government officers have been walking the streets in Toa Payoh and Kreta Ayer with community groups to reach out to the homeless. CNA was recently given an exclusive invite to one of their night walks.
SINGAPORE: When you live on the streets, a shower is one of the hardest things to come by.
You can take shelter in the nooks and crannies of a building when it rains. Temples will serve you hot food, for free when you're hungry.
But when you have been living in your own sweat and grime for days, there is nowhere to go for a wash.
“The smell from your body and clothes can be unbearable,” said 41-year-old Annie, who declined to give her real name.
She spent two years sleeping rough with her boyfriend near the Singapore Management University in the heart of the city.
They were living together at her place, but left after frequent arguments with her younger brother.
READ: About 290 homeless, destitute people in Singapore given help each year over last 3 years
“He wanted to chase my boyfriend out. There was no warmth of family … so we’d rather be outside,” she said in Mandarin.
But that independence, of living without a fixed abode, came with its own set of issues. “People will point and stare,” said Annie.
Once, she told someone off.
“I told them not to (call us names) … I said: 'You don’t know our pain, so why do you judge? You think we want this?'”
They are not the only ones seeking refuge out in the open under the stars.
A 73-year-old cleaner, who only wanted to be known as Mr Yeo, spent 20 years on the streets after his wife sold the flat when he was overseas.
He could not afford to rent on the open market, and ended up spending his nights on the streets of Chinatown.
Mr Yeo said it is hard to get a good night’s rest out in the open, as there are often police checks.
“I’ve had my identity card (IC) details copied more than 30 times,” he said in Mandarin.
FINDING THE HOMELESS A HOME
The plight of these destitute people moved 54-year-old Brian Monteiro to seek out more members of this invisible group.
The programme executive of the Catholic Welfare Services (CWS) took to the streets to give food and drink to the homeless in May 2014, and has never looked back.
Today, the charity’s 150 volunteers work in four neighbourhoods, where they have befriended nearly 120 homeless persons.
Another organisation, Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS) has been on the same befriending mission since July 2014. Volunteers meet fortnightly to reach out to the homeless in the city centre.
READ: Homeless stereotypes busted: Most hold jobs, have been destitute for over a year
Recently, HHOS held a free healthcare event for the homeless after teaming up with private hospital Mt Alvernia.
“Because you’re in constant survival mode every day, healthcare is the last thing on your mind,” said Claire, HHOS volunteer.
About 15 people turned up. Volunteer doctor Eileen Soon said some of the homeless were found to have undiagnosed conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.
The hospital gives subsidised treatments for homeless patients referred to them by Homeless Hearts at their outreach clinics at Toa Payoh and Redhill.
But since May 2018 - through a Government collaboration called Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers or PEERS - the homeless have better hope of finding a forever home.
Of the 65 homeless engaged so far, 28 have been moved off the streets. Seventeen have either returned home or have moved into rental flats, while 11 are in interim accommodations such as transitional shelters.
This initiative sees officers from agencies like Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Housing Development Board (HDB) doing night walks alongside befrienders in Toa Payoh and Kreta Ayer.
The agencies tap on the volunteers’ strong ties with the rough sleepers to gain their trust and render them help.
With the permission of the homeless person, officers were able to check if the individual was eligible for financial aid or rental housing while on the ground. This reduced the need for them to repeat themselves to the different agencies.
“We try to bring the systems closer to the rough sleepers,” said assistant director at MSF Jaslyn Goh.
PERILS OF SLEEPING ROUGH
CNA was given an exclusive invite to one of the night walks.
We met Mr Monteiro and MSF officers in the middle of a housing estate in central Singapore at 10pm.
We began the walk after a quick briefing. As the bustle of the heartland crowd slowly thinned, it became obvious that the homeless were just hidden in plain sight all along.
One man was barely visible behind a haphazard tumble of stained plastic bags – likely holding his life’s possessions. Inches away from his bare feet, a cockroach scuttled away.
Another slouched over a chair in the corner of a dim car park, where rubbish was strewn by the staircase landing.
In the darkness, the homeless tossed and turned in uneasy rest. Dangers abound in the streets – especially when pranksters, itching for a fight, pick on them; or when criminals eye what little valuables they have.
READ: He's 35 and homeless: Eight years of destitute living
Annie learnt that the hard way.
Once, her bag containing all her clothes and toiletries, was stolen when she was asleep. Luckily, she knew of organisations that give out second-hand clothes to the homeless.
During the walk, volunteers told CNA that many rough sleepers lose their ICs to thieves. This then hinders their process of applying for financial aid or housing.
A replacement can cost up to S$300, a sum the homeless most likely cannot afford. Ms Goh said that MSF is working with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority for fee waivers or for them to issue temporary ICs.
MSF says rough sleeping is a complex issue involving multiple underlying social needs – from family violence to financial issues.
During the walk, the group chatted with an elderly man who was struggling with his hoarding habit. His home has become so “uncomfortable” that some nights, he sleeps by the corridor right outside his flat.
“I just cannot stop myself … so I know I need psychiatric help,” he said.
He also told an MSF officer that he wants to find a job so he “doesn’t become a parasite to society".
The officer persuaded him to seek help at a nearby Social Service Office (SSO), and we were told later on that he kept his appointment.
Ms Goh added that in similar cases, the process of getting help as already been fast-tracked as the SSOs are ready to receive them, having gotten their details from the walk.
But not everyone is as forthcoming.
“Some of (the homeless) have had negative experiences with the system,” said Ms Goh.
For those who are not ready to receive help, organisations like New Hope Community Services (NCHS), Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and Sultan mosque have set aside part of their premises as Safe Sound Sleeping Places or S3Ps, where the homeless can spend the night, but they will have to leave in the morning.
Mr Yeo was approached and offered the temporary shelter during a night walk in May.
He was told he was eligible for a rental flat, and being at the shelter would help HDB facilitate his request in a timely manner as they know where to reach him.
He has since been transferred to a transitional shelter, and is now just months away from a getting his flat.
“Now I don’t have to be at the mercy of the weather,” said Mr Yeo.
MSF hopes more organisations will step up to offer the homeless temporary shelters.
Last year, Annie found her way home after family members stepped in and her relationship with her brother improved. With the help of HHOS, her boyfriend was also successfully allocated a public rental flat.
"I was tired," she said. "No matter what, you need a roof over your head."
But for many others, a happy ending remains elusive.
After the walk ended at 1am, we strolled by a sleeping man at a void deck. A gust of wind made him move under the cardboard pieces he was lying on. All that separated him from the cold floor was his shirt.
In the units upstairs, many are snug in their beds.
For him, all he had was the cardboard and perhaps the warmth of the sun in a few hours.