It was reported in the media yesterday that churches are now opening their doors to help shelter people at night (‘Two Catholic Churches offer refuge for the night to people who sleep in public spaces‘, 2 Jun). These are the people who have been sleeping on the streets.
Two Catholic churches, the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Bukit Batok and the Church of Christ the King in Ang Mo Kio have started offering night shelters for the homeless people. The people would go to the churches after 9 pm and are given mattresses, pillows and fans to sleep in the churches’ classrooms. They would then leave the compound by 7am the next day.
The two churches are the first religious groups in Singapore to provide shelter in this manner.
Mr James Chew, the chief executive of the Catholic Welfare Services, said that some of these people have a rental flat but do not want to live there as they cannot get along with their flatmate, while others may have moved out of their family homes after a falling out with relatives.
There are also those who prefer not to live in welfare homes, and people who do not qualify for transitional shelters funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) or Housing Board rental flats.
The Catholic Welfare Services currently distributes food to about 120 people when its volunteers hit the streets on Friday and Saturday nights. It also opened its office in Waterloo Street during office hours so that those without a roof over their heads could use its facilities, such as computers or showers.
Mr Brian Monteiro, the volunteer programme manager of the Catholic Welfare Services, said, “The bun and drink may not quench their thirst or fill their hunger, but it’s a start towards forming a friendship. And when we build up trust, people will share their problems with us.”
Mr Monteiro found that not all of the homeless do not have a place to call home. He said most of them sleeping on the streets are men in their 40s to 70s. They bed down on flattened cardboard pieces in void decks and staircase landings, and often go to sleep only after midnight. They then leave the place before dawn.
“People think that the homeless are all bums and good for nothing. Yet many of the homeless people we see are working but for various reasons, they can’t afford housing,” Mr Monteiro said. Many do odd jobs like dish-washing and on average earn less than $800 a month. They cannot afford to rent a room on the open market, he added.
One of the people who uses the Catholic church for night shelter is an odd-job worker who only wants to be known as Mr Chua, 57. He said he earns only a few hundred dollars a month, is divorced with no children, has no home and has lost contact with his siblings.
Mr Chua said before the church opened its doors, he slept outside a shop at the Waterloo Centre for over five years. He kept his belongings in a locker in a nearby swimming complex and showered there. He said he has not asked the authorities for housing rental help as he can still earn his own keep.
He said in Mandarin, “It’s a lot more comfortable and I feel safer here. With a place to stay, I also feel more settled.”
Why are there so many homeless?
Last year, a news report came out that a restaurant owner, Mr Ng, has been giving out blankets to those sleeping on the streets.
The media followed Mr Ng and in one hour, he delivered nine blankets in Chinatown to mostly elderly men. Some of them lay on benches and reclining chairs, while others made do with a piece of cardboard on the ground.
One of them was carpenter and odd-jobs worker Chua Yong Sia, 61, who told the media that he had been sleeping on the streets in Chinatown for the last three to four years. He said there were about 10 to 20 people sleeping in the area every day.
Financial consultant Leong Sze Hian, who recently joined the opposition movement asked, “Why is it that one of the richest countries in the world with the highest Budget surplus per capita in the billions almost every year – have so many homeless who are elderly?”
Indeed, Singapore may be one of the “riches” country in the world on per capita basis but the distribution of incomes is highly uneven. Presently, 74% of elderly who receive their monthly CPF payouts are only getting less than $500 a month, far short of the recommended $1,379 per month recommended by LKYPP for a decent retirement living in Singapore.
No wonder more homeless people especially the elderly, are appearing on the streets of Singapore, so much so that even religious groups have to open their places of worship to house these people at night.