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Greater whole-of-society push needed to tackle homelessness

Homelessness can look like two elderly men shuffling into a void deck after 10pm, carrying what seems to be their life’s possessions in plastic bags. Two policemen on night patrol came, saw them, said “hello uncles” and left them to be. I was there.

Greater whole-of-society push needed to tackle homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue that intersects with other social issues such as inequality, mental health, domestic abuse, and elderly financial insecurity, says the author.

Homelessness can look like two elderly men shuffling into a void deck after 10pm, carrying what seems to be their life’s possessions in plastic bags. Two policemen on night patrol came, saw them, said “hello uncles” and left them to be. I was there.

The homeless may also take the form of a woman in her late 40s. To make a living, she sells the recycled cardboard that she collects, and occasionally accepts the food distributed by Soup Kitchen Project when she does not make enough in the day to pay for her meals.

When she does make enough, she asks for the free food to be given to someone else. I was the one who gave her the food that evening that she didn’t need.

Mariam (not her real name), who attended my inclusive yoga class years back at a welfare organisation in Shunfu, had fled her abusive husband of 18 years. She was too afraid to go back to her flat even after obtaining a Domestic Exclusion Order.

With her two children, she stayed in a shelter, although its strict hours means that she occasionally ended up sleeping rough.

This is after long hours at her job as a night-time security guard. I was trying to support Mariam, not always knowing what to do, for almost two years.

Suffice to say, these personal experiences dispelled many misconceptions I had of homeless people and homelessness. For one thing, they are often not homeless due to them being “lazy” or not having a job.

Some even have houses registered under their names, but are unwilling or unable to live there. Various personal factors hinder them, such as getting a divorce or being estranged from their family members.

Do we have an official definition of homelessness? I could not find one whilst filing a parliamentary question on the same issue. The only official definition I found was more punitive in purpose within the Destitute Persons Act (revised 2013) and vagrancy ordinances.

I think I’m sufficiently informed by these direct accounts to be able to say that homelessness is, unfortunately, not so neatly and conveniently attributable to just structural factors or personal agency issues.

It is a complex issue that intersects with other social issues such as inequality, mental health, domestic abuse, and financial insecurity among the elderly.

In 2017, volunteer welfare organisation Montfort Care and volunteer group SW101 did a street survey to profile the homeless in Singapore. That was the first study of its kind to be conducted locally, and in one night alone, the group counted 180 persons.

The more troubling reality is that amongst them, none had sought help from shelters, and only 20 per cent had sought help in general. Many of the cases of homelessness were long-term and thus represented a prolonged and consistent inability of current support systems in addressing this problem effectively.

One-third of those surveyed had been sleeping in public for the last one to five years, and 27 per cent have been on the streets for over five years.

In a written response to my parliamentary question in May, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee shared that between 2016 and 2018, his ministry (MSF) provided assistance and support to an average of about 290 individuals per year who were homeless, destitute or sleeping in public places through three transitional shelters and 11 welfare homes.

Families and individuals who have homes but who are not able to return to them are referred to MSF-funded transitional shelters.

For individuals who are unable to support themselves and have limited or no family support, long-term residential care and support is provided by the welfare homes.

For the same 2016-2018 period, four crisis shelters assisted 190 family violence cases on average per year.

There has been increased visibility of homelessness in recent years with local media outlets shining a light on the issue while ground-up initiatives such as the Homeless Hearts of Singapore frequently organise outreach sessions around the streets of Singapore.

Incongruent it may be, the reality is that there are virtually hundreds of people sleeping in the rough each night while the rest of the island slumbers on, none-the-wiser about their presence.

If there is any country that will meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums” by 2030, it must surely be Singapore.

Therefore, we must eradicate homelessness instead of just managing it.

We must look at this not merely as a housing support issue through an institutionalised approach via the Destitute Persons Act but a sincere response to the housing and social security needs of these fellow citizens who have fallen through the cracks due to a combination of structural and personal agency factors, not just the latter.

We must also consider a way forward that is whole of government, recognising that homelessness is not and must not be the responsibility of MSF or the Ministry of Home Affairs, or both ministries, alone.

All ministries should recognise their role in protecting every Singaporean’s right to a home, and we should also facilitate cross-ministerial policy making through the initiation of an inter-agency taskforce.

For example, can the Housing and Development Board explore a “fast track” public rental policy for the homeless? 

This task force should also specifically review the Destitute Persons Act to de-stigmatise the homeless.

The Act currently makes it illegal to sleep rough in Singapore, and people found doing so can be institutionalised into one of the temporary welfare homes. It may also be why so many do not come forward to seek help for fear of punitive consequences.

In addition, we should seek to examine the impact of homelessness on children because, according to MSF, there were an average of about 180 families in the transitional shelters and crisis shelters in each of the last three years.

We must also urge the private sector to be part of the solution for homelessness with meaningful employment and innovations.

In 2016, I volunteered with a private company’s  innovative initiative to help homeless in San Francisco. The company runs a monthly Dignity Village where volunteers set up retail outlets such as hair salons, cafes and even mobile shower rooms. We attended to the homeless like paying customers, without charging them a cent.

If we have an ecosystem to support the homeless that is not punitive in nature but with dignity, I think we may stand a better chance of eradicating homelessness. 

Essentially, I am urging for a greater, all-of-society push. 

The onus cannot be solely on the homeless themselves. It falls on all of us, as a society, to own and eradicate homelessness. Then and only then will Singapore be home, truly, for all.



Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, a social entrepreneur and author of 50 Shades of Love.

Related topics

homeless social services homelessness

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