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The govt has to recognise the existence of the homeless and examine its housing policies. Andrew Loh.

Homeless in the parks – a symptom of flawed housing policies?

Andrew Loh

When the National Parks Board (NParks) relaxed camping rules in December 2004, it cited the popularity of the activity among Singaporeans as a reason.  Campers would no longer be required to obtain camping permits. "With the relaxation of this rule, we hope more families and friends can enjoy camping in our parks,” Dr Leong Chee Chiew, NParks Chief Operating Officer, said then. “This is part of NParks' ongoing efforts to enhance parks users' experiences, and bring more people into our parks". NParks said between January and October that year, it received 10,000 applications for camping permits.

Well, the relaxed rules lasted about 5 years.

There were 12,000 campers in 2008 who used the various parks in Singapore. In March 2009, the permit system was reintroduced because of, ironically, the popularity of camping among Singaporeans. Among the new stipulations, camping days were limited to just 8 days within a one-month period. Campers can only camp for a consecutive 5-day period within a month.

The jump in permit applications in 2008/2009 perhaps coincides with the economic downturn. One of the consequences of the economic malaise was the number of people who defaulted on servicing their mortgage loans from the HDB or the banks. In a report in January 2009, the Sunday Times said “such defaults have climbed from 5 per cent to 8 per cent of all HDB home loans.” In total, some 33,000 households were in arrears for more than three months. This means one in 12 borrowers are in default, a rise from one in 20 previously. Members of Parliament have also confirmed seeing more of such cases at their Meet-The-People sessions.

So, what happens when one is unable to service the loan?

Aisha (not her real name) and her husband have been camped out at Sembawang Park for several months. Previously they had been living with Aisha’s mother until September 2009. When the family could no longer service the mortgage loans, they had to sell the flat, otherwise it would be repossessed by the HDB. Unfortunately for them, the flat was sold at a lower price than when they first bought it. When her mother applied for a rental flat from the HDB, she was told that she did not qualify. The rules say she had to wait 30 months as she has just sold off her flat. In any case, even if she qualified, she would have to wait anything from 5.5 months to as long as 19 months, according to the HDB website, before one would be available for her.

So, where does she go in the meantime?

As for Aisha herself, who has two small children, she had sought help from MCYS previously. The officer that she met, we’re told, suggested that she put up at a hotel in Geylang instead because “it is cheaper”.

It is believed that there is only one home for the homeless in Singapore, run by New Hope Community Services. We understand that it is already at full capacity. The homeless have no choice but to sleep out in the open, at parks and void decks.

Yet, it seems that even this is not allowed.

When the raid on the homeless took place on Saturday, it was obvious that it was a poorly-coordinated and desperate attempt at ridding the park of the homeless campers. The police, which came with officers from MCYS and NParks, started ordering the campers to dismantle their tents and also issued summons for infringements of camping rules.

The authorities must have known about the situation at Sembawang Park for months. If they did not, one would have to question their competency. Would it not have been better then for the authorities to visit the place quietly, speak with the homeless, find out about their plight and help them, rather than come in such an intimidating fashion? It makes one question if the aim was to truly help the homeless or simply to intimidate them or haul them away into oblivion. After all, why issue summons and bring the police along?

Does that sound like “helping” the homeless?

And the authorities had no idea where to house the campers, besides telling TOC that they hope to find some voluntary welfare organizations to take them in. Clearly, the raid on Saturday was ill-conceived. What were the authorities planning to do? To cart off the campers to Angsana Home as they did last Thursday with two of the families? The conditions there were, according to the families, unbearable.  They were locked-in and were not allowed  free movement out of the premises. Not surprisingly, the families were back at Sembawang Park the next day, after a friend had "bailed" them out. It is believed Angsana Home houses ex-drug addicts and the mentally ill, besides the elderly destitute.

Yet, the issue here is a bigger and more important one – that of the affordability of public housing. With more and more people defaulting on their mortgage loans, and prices of flats reaching ridiculous ranges, how many more people will be driven to homelessness?

Already, in 2008 the Prime Minister expressed his concern about the rise in the number of people seeking rental flats. In the preceding year, there were 4,000 applications for such flats with a waiting time of 15 months.

The Minister for National Development has tacitly recognized the problem and announced that his ministry would be building 7,500 more one and two-room flats over the next three years for the public housing rental scheme. This is in addition to the 42,000 current public rental flats, bringing the total to almost 50,000.

Would an additional 7,500 rental flats over the next three years be enough? Given that the waiting period and the waiting list itself are so long, one would question if this is adequate.

Where do the homeless sleep in the meantime?

Two blocks of HDB flats in Toa Payoh were recently reserved for foreign workers from the two Integrated Resorts. As my colleague, Leong Sze Hian, pointed out, “HDB flats, being public housing – a precious, limited resource, and much in demand – should only be reserved for Singaporeans.”

With the growing number of homeless Singaporeans, shouldn’t the authorities have reserved the two blocks of flats for them, instead of foreign workers? This is especially sad when everyone from the PM to his MND minister, from officials from the MCYS to the Members of Parliament, are fully aware of the growing number of homeless Singaporeans, of the long waiting period for rental flats, and the increasing number of those applying for these flats.

Thus, one would advise government officers, particularly those from NParks and MCYS, to be more understanding with regards to homeless campers. These homeless have nowhere else to go. Parroting the dictum that "HDB flats are still affordable", as our minister Mah Bow Tan has been doing, is little comfort to those who are driven to homelessness.

Ironically, just beside Sembawang Park, a new housing development – Watercove Ville - is being built, boasting beachfront housing for those who can afford it.

In the meantime, the homeless have to tread carefully, in case another posse of authorities come a-helping, with the police in tow – lights flashing and all.

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