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Heroes Unmasked: ‘These are our friends’ — volunteers keep helping homeless even after group suspends outreach

SINGAPORE — After Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) alert level to Orange, the Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS) that had volunteers befriending and helping homeless people suspended its fortnightly outreach on Feb 10.

Heroes Unmasked: ‘These are our friends’  —  volunteers keep helping homeless even after group suspends outreach

Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo (left) and core team member Peng Cheng Yu (right) continued to meet up with the homeless during the Covid-19 outbreak, handing out masks, hand sanitisers and vitamins to them.

As Singapore battles the Covid-19 outbreak, TODAY’s Heroes Unmasked series highlights those who are doing their bit to spread kindness and compassion during this period. In this instalment, we talk to volunteers from Homeless Hearts of Singapore who are spending time with people sleeping rough to help them through the outbreak.

 

SINGAPORE — After Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) alert level to Orange, the Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS) that had volunteers befriending and helping homeless people suspended its fortnightly outreach on Feb 10.

However, out of the group of 30 regular volunteers, a core team of five HHOS members decided to continue meeting up with the homeless during the Covid-19 outbreak. One of them is the group's co-founder Mr Abraham Yeo, 38, who works as a software developer.

He said: “These are our friends. Some of them are like brothers and sisters to us, just like our family. We want to continue keeping in touch with them. When times get tough, a friend doesn’t just go away.”

Mr Yeo and his core team now take turns every few days to visit both central and residential areas frequented by homeless people, handing out masks, hand sanitisers and vitamins to them.

“Mainly, we check on them and ask them how they are, what their health is like, how they are doing that day,” he told TODAY, adding that volunteers would sometimes share a meal with a homeless friend.

The larger scale official outreach was cancelled to protect all involved, he said.

The volunteers found that it was vital during the outbreak period to educate the homeless on the importance of maintaining good hygiene and to keep them updated with the news.

Many homeless people declined the masks given to them by HHOS, leading volunteers to suspect that they were unaware of the outbreak, Mr Yeo said. This observation played a large part in motivating the core team to conduct their own personal outreach.

Ms Peng Cheng Yu, 24, a nurse and another core team member, said that those living on the streets are especially vulnerable to the Covid-19 situation, as their access to showering facilities is limited and they can often hang around crowded places.

Most of them also suffer from a weaker-than-average immunity system due to poorer nutrition and a lack of quality sleep, she said.

“Personal hygiene is definitely an issue for them. It is not their top priority on a daily basis, and some of them do not have access to the news to learn about the current situation,” she told TODAY.

In response, HHOS has registered some of the homeless with the Mount Alvernia Outreach Medical Clinic, which focuses on treating the less fortunate who have acute illnesses.

An additional challenge for many homeless people is their tendency to mistrust others, making them averse to accepting help from police officers or other people in positions of authority.

As a result, HHOS volunteers concentrate primarily on befriending those sleeping rough, showing them concern and building rapport with them.

Mr Yeo said: “Befriending is core to what we do. It has taken us quite a while to get to this stage. A number of them have relational issues, so it takes a lot for them to trust us.”

He said that HHOS volunteers would often help homeless people articulate their concerns to social service or police officers, and conversely explain to them information that they had received from the authorities.

“Singaporeans tend to want to solve problems very fast, and some people think that we can just help our homeless friends by throwing money at them. But we have to remember that people are relational and need trust,” he added.

Ms Peng said that many homeless people also contact HHOS volunteers for guidance on what to do when they fall sick.

“We have a WhatsApp group for some of them and, generally, they call us before they go down to the Mt Alvernia clinic because they are not sure what to do.” 

She said that around half of the 40 homeless that HHOS regularly reaches out to own mobile phones or have access to WhatsApp.

Mr Yeo told TODAY that while their outreach efforts were suspended during the Covid-19 outbreak, he encouraged other volunteers apart from the core team to visit and touch base with the homeless friends with whom they are close.

He feels that it is his personal responsibility and duty to care for his own homeless friends, who have few others to turn to for aid or information.

“If it gets to Dorscon Red, who will go up to them to tell them that they need to watch out for themselves?” 

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus Wuhan virus homeless volunteers Homeless Hearts of Singapore

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