Homeless people are “defective”, needs “rehabilitation”?

The starting point, clearly, for these government officers is that once you’re destitute, you need to be “rehabilitated”. Is the government saying that homeless people are somehow “defective”?

Andrew Loh

The response from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the National Parks Board (Nparks) to a letter by Mr Joshua Chiang on the issue of the homeless is, to say the least, appalling. (See here.)

While it is not surprising that these government departments would defend the government’s stand on the issue, the manner in which Mr Chiang’s points were summarily dismissed or ignored shows the insignificance the officers who signed off on the response give to the issues raised in Mr Chiang’s letter.

But what really takes the cake is the reply that:

“Pursuant to the Destitute Persons Act, anyone found in a public place with no means of subsistence or accommodation will be admitted to a welfare home for evaluation and rehabilitation.”

First of all, why do the officers, in quoting the Act,  immediately assume that there is somehow something “defective” about homeless people, so much so that they have to undergo “evaluation” and “rehabilitation”? The reply does not indicate or explain what these “evaluation” and “rehabilitation” mean.

More importantly, such a reply smacks of an appalling lack of understanding of what being homeless is and who these homeless people are. The reply seems to indicate that anyone found to be destitute will automatically undergo such a process of “evaluation” or “rehabilitation”.

The starting point, clearly, for these government officers is that once you’re destitute, you need to be “rehabilitated”.

In short, is the government saying that homeless people are somehow “defective”?

In our interaction with the homeless, they indeed are quite normal people. They have families. They laugh and cry as ordinary people do. They worry and yes, they do have jobs as well. And they aspire to better lives for themselves and their families – just as everyone does.

While they also may have been less than prudent in their plans for their lives or livelihood, this however does not mean they are any less ordinary, or that they are indeed abnormal and in need of “rehabilitation”.

Finally, the government’s reply, unwittingly or not, will contribute to the stereotype of the homeless as “lesser Singaporeans”.

Perhaps what is needed is for government officials to be more careful in their choice of words in describing certain segments of Singaporeans - especially the less fortunate.

And also for these officers to understand that while they may be acting according to the law, the law is not carved in stone or should be applied without compassion and common sense.

It would have been good if the reply had addressed the particular examples raised by Mr Chiang – instead of saying that all is fine and dandy and that the government departments are on top of things.

Clearly, the rising number of homeless people taking shelter in our public areas (which do not just mean our public parks) shows that MCYS, the HDB and NParks are not addressing the issue effectively, despite its claim to the contrary.

Again, in our interaction with the homeless, the behavior of some of these officials, especially those from NParks and the HDB, leaves much to be desired.

The reply may paint these government departments as being caring and wanting to help the homeless, from our observation however, this is far from true in many cases.

For if the claim was true, there wouldn’t be so many homeless people camping out in parks and beaches for months before MCYS, the HDB and Nparks decided to “help”.

Did these departments suddenly become "caring" overnight?

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