Home to the homeless

Story and picture by Joshua Chiang

The campsite had a holiday feel to it. Clothes hung on makeshift clothes-line. Small stoves and barbeque pits occupy the floor around the park shelter. There were fishing rods, crab traps, guitars, styrofoam boxes, unwashed plates and utensils as well.

At one of the shelter, there was even a table on which were two containers of syrup. People – mostly Malays – sat in the shelter, chatting, laughing. A couple arrived with their kid pushing a small shopping cart of groceries. I counted 23 tents pitched on a grass patch about 50 meters long. The kampung spirit certainly lived on in these people, one would assume.

Except that most of them would rather not be here at Sembawang Park. They were here because they had nowhere else to go. You could say they are homeless, but you would be wrong. The homeless do not exist in Singapore. They are merely ‘temporarily displaced’.

Andrew (Chief Editor of TOC) and I spoke to a couple seated inside one of the shelters. The male – his name is Zazali – had a place to stay, but he came on weekends to see his friends staying here. He was a very friendly chap, but as he spoke about the people living here (he claimed there were about 15 households), you could sense the frustration in his voice.

When it rains, he said, the tents became flooded, even with the extra layer of canvas on top of almost every single one of them. (Next time you want to know if the campers are merely here for a day or two, or much longer, look at their tents). So what happened to the people inside the tents? I asked. They come to the shelter, Zazali replied.

I looked around at the open shelter and asked how would it stop them from getting wet in a heavy storm. “Like this,” said Zazali standing behind one of the pillars.

“And when there’s a strong wind, everything fly,” he continued, gesturing at the items around him. “Everything.”

I imagined a whole family huddled behind one such pillars, most likely with a huge plastic sheet wrapped around them, pelted by the rain with the wind billowing around them, and wondered how anyone could live like for months at a stretch.

But apparently they did.

The only place they can keep their belongings – in the open

Somehow living like that had become the norm for them. Every eight days, they would go to the nearby AXS machine to re-book the use of the grass patch for their tents. (Legally no-one can camp at the place for more than eight days a month, but they somehow managed to get around it by getting their friends or older family members to take turns registering) But there were a few who had smaller networks of friends and family members, and they were fined up to $200 when they couldn’t re-book the turf.

They showered and washed their laundry and dishes, and got their drinking water at the nearby toilet.

“At least here, it is free,” Zazali noted. “At East Coast (Park) you pay 20 cents per entry.”

They cook their meals on portable gas stoves. Sometimes visitors would offer them their leftover barbecued food.

Didn’t any organizations come to donate stuff, I asked. He shook his head. It appeared that the only people who visited them were the park rangers. And it was usually to ask to see their permits.

We were joined briefly by a young teenage boy who introduced himself as Sulaiman. His family of five – minus his father – had been staying here for four months ever since their uncle decided not to shelter them. His mother was in her 40s. Until recently, she was the only one in the family working. His eldest brother, who was sleeping in one of the tents, just found a job in the shipyard nearby.

They had tried applying for one of the HDB rental flats but were told the waiting period was 13 months (and even then it was on a case-by-case basis, and also subject to an income-cap regulation). They were told the same thing when they approached their MP, or more accurately, the MP’s assistant.

I forgot to ask if they had tried the open market (after all, if two people were working, they should be able to afford to pay the rental of $500 a month – which is the usual rate now), but I guessed having helped a friend find a room to rent before, most landlords would not want a family of five to share a room when they could offer the same room to a single person who is bound to be less of a hassle)

We found out later that Sulaiman and his siblings had stopped schooling. Whatever the reason, we made a mental note to find out more when we return. Poverty should not be an excuse for stopping people from getting a decent education if they want to. (We also found out much to our astonishment that Yanni – the girl with Zazali- had been suspended from school for seven months – an awfully long time for whatever offenses she had committed)

“You go talk to them ,” Zazali said, looking in the direction of the tents . “They get to know you more, then you will see them cry sometimes.”

How the homeless at the park dry their clothes

Pretty soon it was time to leave. We shook hands and gave our word that we would highlight this issue in whatever ways we can.

“Thank you for listening,” was Yanni’s parting words. I felt the urge to tell her that many times that was all we could do, but held back. I guessed she knew as much. But at the same time, that was what the tent people needed at the very least. For someone to listen. For people to know.

On our way out, we passed by a piece of land designated for the building of eighty houses. There is little doubt that there would be a mad rush for these units when they’re completed, even if each unit costs two millions. After all, it is next to a beautiful park, and faces the sea. If you’re lucky, your house might be the one getting the best view of the rising sun at dawn.

There is little doubt too that the tent people would trade all these for somewhere they can sleep without getting wet whenever it rains.

You can join this group to see more photos, or if you know people with similar stories to share: Happy Campers

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