The problem of homelessness in Singapore isn’t due to laziness or a lack of effort

Posting on Facebook this Tuesday, sociologist and member of the Worker’s Party Daniel Goh shared his experience with the homeless in Singapore. The associate professor posted a photo of a void deck at a flat somewhere in Singapore and shared a tale of a homeless man who had temporarily sought refuge there.

Assoc Prof Goh said, “A resident sent me a photo of a man resting here, curled up from the cold, surrounded by cardboard boxes and meagre belongings, a couple of shirts hanging from the metal grilles. I tried looking for him since, at different times of the day and night, but couldn’t find him.”

He then highlights various reasons a person might end up sleeping on the streets in Singapore – not being able to go home for one reason or another, rejecting assistance, people caught between jobs or long hours, some who just want to be left alone.

The WP member added, “I have searched and met a number of “homeless” persons while helping Mr Low with constituency work. A few residents see this as a municipal problem for the town council, the “homeless” an unwanted guest. Most feel sorry for those roughing it out in the elements but don’t know how to help them. It is a testimony that one stayed on long enough, as paramedics attended to a “homeless” man who fainted, to help me locate him later.”

He admits that he doesn’t really know how to help either, saying that he only try to talk to them and offer help.

Describing one encounter, he says “Once I dissuaded a man from setting up camp in a void deck as this affected residents there and fixed a day with him to drive and accompany him to MSF to seek assistance. But he cleared out and said he was going to go live with a friend.”

On another occasion, he has left a card for a man who was living in a disused study area in the void deck, but the man cleared out the next day, never reaching out.

Assoc Prof Goh said, “I don’t leave cards anymore; I just hope to meet them to talk.”

To some, reading this story might come as a surprise – that there are homeless people in shiny Singapore. But in fact, the Ministry of Social & Family Development said they assisted an average of 385 homelessness cases each year between 2015 and 2017.

Upon hearing this, many people subconsciously adopt stereotypes of homeless people, that they are lazy and/unemployed, which is how they ended up sleeping on the streets in the first place.

But according to a survey by welfare organisation Montfort Care and volunteer group SW101 in 2017, two third of the 180 street-sleepers who were interviewed said they have a job and more than 25% said they even have a flat to their name. A quarter of them are also married. The survey dispelled these stereotypes about homeless people in Singapore.

Homeless not from lack of trying

In an article, the Asia Law Network (ALN) pointed out that many people in Singapore end up homeless not because they are ‘lazy’ or ‘unemployed’. They argue that many tend to fall into trouble due to tenancy disagreements, poorly managed finances, cheating and fraud, or a lack of understanding of their legal rights. ALN noted that the majority of people stuck in this difficult situation tend to be the elderly and those who are not highly educated.

The thing is, the current system is less than effective in helping people like this out of a tough situation, particularly when it comes to securing a home. Finding a place to stay is rather difficult for some people.

In an article (October 2017), TODAY interviewed several homeless people who had slept at the Bras Basah Complex. Three out of four of those interviewed by TODAY had camped at Bras Basah Complex at some point. One person had told them that the Government’s rental housing schemed didn’t work for him as he had to live with a stranger. Another said he had a bad experience with a roommate from that same scheme.

While there are schemes and programmes out there with the intention of helping those in need secure housing, the eligibility criteria are often tough to meet. For example, the Fresh Start Housing Scheme which was intended to help former flat owners living in public rental flats to transition back into HDP  ownership misses the mark a little.

AWARE argues that for many single mothers, impoverishment and homelessness are pressing threats and they need immediate access to rental housing, not eventual access to housing ownership. One single mother told AWARE that she was regarded by HDB as “too well-off to qualify for a rental flat, but too poor to buy a flat.” Those in this situation end up having to rent homes in the open market, dipping into whatever savings they have. At the end of the 30-month debarment period, many will have become poor.

Moreover, the criteria that these people need to meet to be eligible for assistance under Fresh Start includes continuous employment and regular school attendance. Simple though that may sound, AWARE points out that poverty itself often leads to gaps in employment and schooling which in turn makes them ineligible for assistance. Single mothers have a hard time securing continuous employment when they need to take care of their children, especially children with disabilities and it’s difficult to maintain steady schooling when you’re shuffling around different living arrangements regularly. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Those who do work often find themselves falling into financial hardship because when they earn more income, the price of HDB rental housing often goes up. This makes it difficult for them to accumulate any savings at all. Worse still, if a single mother starts working, subsidies drop on the assumption that she can immediately pay for all her children’s expenses but that doesn’t take into account the extra expenses necessary when working such as transport and meals.

A system that wants to help but isn’t quite as efficient

Another example if that of elderly Singaporean Mr Lim Kee Khoon who was sleeping in the Henderson Hawker Centre for two months as he had trouble finding a place to live with his brother.

The 70-year old used to live in a rental flat that he was forced to share with a stranger, ah elderly gentlemen. His flatmate had apparently suffered a stroke earlier in his life leaving him partially disabled, meaning Mr Lim suddenly became his flatmate’s de facto caretaker and had to take on the extra financial burden.

Desperate for money as he could not take on a normal job, Mr Lim resorted to working as a drug courier. He was caught and sentenced to 10 years in jail at 63-year old. He was released early at 70 for good behaviour.

After prison, Mr Lim tried apply for a rental flat with his brother. Unfortunately, his brother had sold a flat 8 years ago and the officers whom Mr Lim spoke with said that his brother has to wait another 2 years before they are eligible to rent together.

Political activist Brad Bowyer who highlighted Mr Lim’s case on social media described Mr Lim as a victim of ““poorly conceived rules” and “institutionalised and systematic neglect”. No one was really helping and Mr Lim was stuck. Mr Bowyer highlighted how Mr Lim’s cries for help to the Tanjung Pagar MP Joan Pereira and HDB were left unanswered.

Responding to the claims, the Housing Development Board (HDB) came forward to say that Singapore’s Social Service Office (SSO) had been in touch with Mr Lim and were trying to provide assistance.

SSO said they tried to offer help but were declined several times while Tanjung Pagar MP Joan Pereira said that various government agencies have been in touch with Mr Lim to offer assistance.

Speaking to TOC, Mr Lim verified Mr Bowyer’s version of events. He also explained that that he was told to seek shelter at a halfway house but he rejected the offer because he didn’t want to get back into bad company again. He just wanted to get back into a normal life.

Mr Lim shared that he was being passed from one agency to another and eventually had to seek shelter at the market and got goodwill assistance from members of public who pitied him.

This story does have a happy ending though, as Mr Lim’s application to share a rental flat has since been processed with the help of a Mr Yip Kum Fei from HDB and his team. He now lives in a modest flat with his brother who has started working as a cleaner.

Mr Lim said to TOC in the previous meet up that all the help he needs from the government is to have a roof over his head so that he can concentrate on working to make ends meet.