Support for Homeless during COVID-19

Parliamentary Question, 5 May 2020

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/panel-to-shed-light-on-plight-of-homeless-in-singapore

Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Social and Family Development: (a) what is the current total capacity of shelters for homeless persons with the safe distancing measures; (b) how many rough sleepers have been housed/sheltered, and how many have been booked by the Police under Destitute Persons’ Act, since the start of Circuit Breaker; © what is the ramp-up plan — how many beds, how soon, current updates, challenges: (d) how are we ensuring that the Covid-19 relief measures are reaching all our 1,000+ homeless persons; (e) what types of care and support are we giving to those who are still or choose to be on the streets; (f) what learnings have we gathered on our strategy on homeless with the Covid-19 crisis?

This question was answered by the Minister on 4 May 2020 together with other questions on homeless persons by other MPs:

The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Desmond Lee): Mr Speaker, I will address Mr Gan Thiam Poh’s and Mr Murali Pillai’s questions on homelessness in this reply, as well as the question* from Ms Anthea Ong, which was filed for tomorrow.

As the COVID-19 outbreak evolves, ensuring the safety of those who are homeless and rough sleeping is of paramount importance to MSF and the PEERS Network, which stands for Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers. The PEERS Network currently has 26 members and includes Government agencies, social service agencies and ground-up community groups.

We have seen an increase in the number of people seeking shelter over this past month. When the PEERS Network was formed in July 2019, less than half of the 65 people engaged were willing to accept help. During the circuit breaker, nearly 300 have come forward so far to seek shelter and assistance, including many who were affected by travel restrictions.

Since the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations 2020 were effected, we have worked closely with our colleagues in the frontline agencies, such as the Police and NParks, to refer homeless people and rough sleepers to our shelters, to our Social Service Offices and to relevant social service agencies for shelter and financial assistance. Those who are homeless will not face penalties under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations 2020, if they are assisted by us.

We are deeply grateful to our community partners and social services agencies in the PEERS Network who have continued their efforts amidst the COVID-19 outbreak by reaching out to homeless people, providing social intervention. We have also distributed care packs with hygiene kits and surgical masks to temporary shelter residents, as well as homeless persons in the streets, alongside encouraging them to accept shelter and help.

To meet the need for more shelter spaces, we have worked together with both existing and new PEERS Network partners to offer their premises as Safe Sound Sleeping Places (S3Ps). Since the start of the circuit breaker, our PEERS Network S3Ps have expanded both capacity and operating hours to keep our friends indoors as much as possible. They have allowed their homeless guests to remain in the S3Ps throughout the day and provide them meals. PEERS partners, such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Catholic Welfare Services, Good News Community Services and New Hope Community Services, have also stepped forward to run new S3Ps as we expected there would be more people needing shelter during this crisis.

Twenty seven new organisations have answered our call for action, bringing the total number of organisations setting up or operating S3Ps to 35. Some of these are the Singapore Anglican Community Services, together with the Anglican Diocese of Singapore, Kassim Mosque, Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church, Pasir Panjang Hill Community Services, Assyakirin Mosque and Tao One Ltd. HDB has also provided vacant rental flats to our community partners for them to operate S3Ps during this crisis.

Together, all the S3Ps are able to accommodate some 700 rough sleepers. Currently, we have about 400 spaces available. We would like to thank all our partners for generously welcoming our homeless friends of the street as guests into their premises and operating the S3Ps round the clock at this time.

There are currently about 70 families and 75 individuals in our Transitional Shelters. These shelters provide a safe place for residents while social workers help them address their social issues and work towards long-term, stable accommodation.

There is a small proportion of homeless individuals who may be destitute as they lack family support and are unable to care for themselves. There are currently about 1,900 such individuals housed in Welfare Homes. We provide care and rehabilitation at Welfare Homes to improve their physical and emotional well-being and, where possible, re-integrate them back into the community. MSF encourages potential destitute persons to admit themselves to Welfare Homes for their own safety and well-being. We do not track the number of individuals who decline help.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked how many residents in Transitional Shelters and Welfare Homes have relatives. We do not have that information readily on-hand, but 90% of individuals in Transitional Shelters and Welfare Homes are single, divorced, widowed or separated.

Ms Anthea Ong asked about the learning gathered from our strategy on the homeless with the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis has reaffirmed the importance of close collaboration between Government agencies and community partners. Together with our partners and other members of the community, we have been able to more quickly extend help to the homeless during this period. Our aim is not only to keep homeless people and rough sleepers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but to help them resolve their underlying challenges and to get back on their feet beyond this period.

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): Sir, I thank the Minister for the reply and I especially thank him for being on the ground to help the homeless people. I understand that, as the Minister mentioned, a lot of the homeless people are now seeking shelter at the places of worship because they are empty at this point of time. But when they go back to their usual function, could I ask whether MSF has plans for housing for this group of homeless people?

Mr Desmond Lee: A number of our S3P partners in the PEERS Network are prepared to provide these spaces beyond the circuit breaker. In fact, even prior to circuit breaker, a number of our PEERS partners, both religious and secular organisations, who already run activities on an on-going basis on their premises, have set aside space as a shelter. So, quite a number are able to provide that commitment beyond this period. We, of course, expect that a number of others may not have the space available after this. Having certain that, we continue to establish transitional shelter spaces as well as spaces in S3Ps to support them.

The key, of course, is to work with them to resolve the underlying social, family and personal circumstances in order for them to return home, in order for them to find permanency and shelter.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok): Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to thank the hon Minister for his explanation to my Parliamentary Question. I am heartened to note the cooperation between the PEERS Network, community partners and religious organisations. I think it is very uniquely Singapore to have religious organisations coming together to provide help to rough sleepers across religions. My question is in relation to the current situation involving rough sleepers who are not yet housed. May I please ask the hon Minister’s assessment of the current situation and what further steps he anticipates to take during the pendency of the COVID-19 measures?

Mr Desmond Lee: Sir, over the course of the work of the PEERS Network, we have reached out to and befriended many homeless people to understand what are the circumstances behind their current plight. While some have no home, a number actually have homes they cannot return to because of family disputes. To the extent that we know them, we have reached out to them through our network of partners to bring them into the S3Ps in order for them to be sheltered from the open, for them to get help and in order for them to be kept safe during this circuit breaker period.

There are, of course, other rough sleepers and homeless whom our network do not know. Even during the circuit breaker, as an essential service, they continue to reach out and look out for people who are in need of help. There are, of course, some people, including seniors, who are unable to go back home, especially in the day time, because of their family circumstances, because of often disputes with other members of the family.

Our safe distancing ambassadors, as you have read in the newspapers, have gone around with the help of social workers to identify people who are out there in the open, not because they refuse to comply but because they have serious underlying issues back home. These social workers then work with the network with other partners to try to resolve those issues and in the meantime find a temporary space for them to take respite. This work is on-going and the more partners we have in this network, the more effective will be making sure that every Singaporean remains safe.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Mr Speaker, I thank the Minister for the response to my question for tomorrow. Could I actually ask two supplementary questions which are really relating to the questions I had in my Parliamentary Question. Do we have any idea how many of the homeless persons have actually been booked by the Police under the Destitute Persons Act since the start of the circuit breaker? Also, how are we ensuring that the COVID-19 relief measures that we have put out actually reach these homeless persons as well? Because in the sense that they are actually on the streets, how would we actually reach out to them to make sure that they are also coming forward to obtain their relief measures?

Mr Desmond Lee: The Member asked, first, how many homeless people have been booked under the Destitute Persons Act. There is no punitive penalty against a person being homeless. The Destitute Persons Act is a legislation of last resort for people who are unable to care for themselves and have no support. A small group of these homeless people are destitute and are subject to this Act. Even for that group, we persuade them to take shelter and admit themselves to a welfare home to get the support they need, and we reserve the use of the legislation as a matter of last resort. So, that is number one.

I think the Member actually means to ask how many homeless people have been served with composition fines under the Control Order. I do not have that number. I think we have to ask MEWR for the latest data. But I think MEWR, together with social service agencies, is mindful that there are some people who have underlying issues behind their being out in the open. So, that is a very important aspect of exercising enforcement and discretion.

The second question the Member asked is how do we ensure that people who are homeless and have no access to, say, a mailbox, get the support provided under the various budgetary measures. In fact, even before the COVID-19 pandemic,our PEERS partners, together with MSF and the other agencies, in reaching out and befriending homeless people have been working with them to ensure that they get the benefits under the GST Voucher, Merdeka Generation and Pioneer Generation packages and when they encounter some challenges, for example, because they do not have ICs and other issues, we have worked with the relevant agencies to make sure that those obstacles are removed to get the help that they need.

So, likewise, even during this pandemic period, we have been reaching out to people who are homeless and see that they get the support they need, including working with CPF Board and other agencies, so that they get the Solidarity payment and other support.

For homeless people, our partners reach out to them and tell them about the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF), COVID-19 Support Grant and SIRS, have the forms and brochures with them available. In fact, in February, I visited one of our S3Ps and our shelters, and spoke to the social worker who had been given the material for the TRF by the MSF officers and given the forms for TRF. I believe that would be in March instead, not February. And these social workers then helped the homeless people to fill in those forms and to make the necessary applications.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng