We Must Own Homelessness as a Society

Speech at the first Homelessness Learning Forum, 25 April 2019

Good morning. Very honoured to be part of this illustrious panel and to participate in such a meaningful forum.

First, I must preface my sharing with an admission that I do not necessarily feel very qualified to be on this panel for I’ve always had a roof over my head, even in my darkest moments when my world collapsed on me with a broken marriage, a failed business and $16 in my bank account at 38 years old.

My second admission is that I said yes to New Hope’s invitation to be on this panel because I’m beyond inspired by this first sincere attempt to have an open national conversation about Homelessness in Singapore. Because it wasn’t too long ago that our narrative was that we did not have a homeless issue.

Personal Stories and Observations

My only contribution today would be the observations through the direct experience I’ve had with people going through different levels of homelessness. My first encounter was with the Soup Kitchen Project as a volunteer. Volunteers cook food to distribute to the Sungei Road peddlers and residents of the rental blocks at Kelantan Lane every Monday evening. What stuck with me most were two compelling episodes:

a) There was a lady, probably in her late 40s, who sells recycled cardboards that she collects. We know that she sleeps in the void deck nearby. I had distributed the food pack to her before but that one evening, she actually said to me in Mandarin when I offered her: “Thank you but today I made some money so my meals have been covered. Please give to the others who need this more.” I even tried to cajole her to take a pack and save for supper but she was insistent. What an amazing human, I thought then.

b) On another night, I decided to hang around with a few other volunteers in the void deck after our rounds. By about 10pm, two elderly men came to claim their spots, complete with what I believed may be their life’s possessions in plastic bags. 30–40 minutes later, two policemen did their patrol, said hello to the two uncles and asked them to take care, then moved on. It wasn’t the first night that the uncles were settling in there for the night, neither was it the first time that the men in blue met them.

A few years later, I met Mariam, an Indian-Muslim Singaporean in her early 40s who came to the yoga class that I was volunteer-teaching at a VWO in Shunfu. This was 9 years ago when I started the Project Yoga-on-Wheels initiative. For three months, she was a dedicated participant in my class and I began to know her better. She has three children — 2 girls and a boy, the oldest was 18 and the youngest was her son who was 8 and suffered from frequent epileptic seizures. Then she started sharing about the abuse by her alcoholic husband since they got married 18 years ago. The right side of her body had some disfigurement because her husband poured hot water over her. One day, she didn’t turn up for class and I found out from the VWO that Mariam finally left her husband with her kids. I visited her at Star Shelter and learned that her husband got more violent (with chopper knife and all) and was also going for her 18 year old daughter. She dare not go back to the flat even when she was granted Domestic Exclusion Order; she couldn’t get a rental flat because her name was still in the Shunfu flat; she’s not worked at all through the 18 years but will have to now or she won’t be eligible for government assistance schemes. Yet she has to look after her son who frequently gets seizures and when that happens, the school will call her to take him home. She had to move to another shelter because the children’s school bus which she could get assistance for could not come to Star Shelter. In the other shelter run by a Christian group, she was conflicted because she was concerned if her children would be influenced by a different religion. She found a job as a night time security guard and leave her son to the care of her eldest daughter. Unfortunately, because of the strict hours of the Shelter, she could end up rough-sleeping sometimes. She also became nervous about leaving her children alone at night, especially her 18 year old daughter, as this Shelter also houses ex-offenders and persons with mental health conditions. Thankfully, she heeded my urging and went to the CDC for employment support, and started taking some courses. She and her three children stayed on in the shelter for over a year and a half (longer than the average), later found a clerical job with her new skills and the divorce and sale of the flat helped her exit the shelter. I may have supported her where I could with financial and other resources but I most definitely felt helpless watching her hopelessness and struggles navigating one structural constraint after another.

Then, there are the many different and complex stories from other residents in Star Shelter and several women I know through Aware who have homelessness as an outcome, amongst others. There’s Nancy (not her real name) who is 45 and awaiting judgement for her divorce. Her ex-husband kicked her out of their matrimonial home which she’s not a co-owner of, and refused to let her go back. She has been living in her friend’s place but she feels that this is not sustainable. Her three children are still staying with their father. However, her youngest child (whom she has full care and control of) has a bad relationship with his father who verbally abuse him frequently. Being Indonesian before becoming a Singaporean, Nancy has no other family here and cannot rely on family support for housing.

Homelessness: Structural ‘AND’ Agency Factors, not ‘OR’

Suffice to say, these personal experiences dispelled many misconceptions I had of homeless people and homelessness. I’m also sufficiently informed by these direct accounts that homelessness is, unfortunately, not so neatly and conveniently attributable to just structural factors or personal agency issues. Do we have an official definition on Homelessness? I couldn’t find one whilst filing a parliamentary question on the same issue which will hopefully be responded to in the upcoming sitting. The only official definition I found was more punitive in purpose within the Destitute Persons Act (revised 2013) and vagrancy ordinances.

However we choose to define homelessness, the contributing factors are multidimensional and often complex. According to the ethnographic study of 26 older homeless persons by Harry Tan as his doctoral thesis, three key social institutions of 1) work, 2) family & friends and 3) government assistance provide the necessary resources to avoid a housing crisis in Singapore.

Mariam’s story showed that structural constraints in housing, social and employment policies may have contributed to her housing crisis. Her family support system was non-existent as her parents have both passed on (immigrants from India) and her only sister was living with her husband in India. Access to childcare services was tied to her employment status yet she couldn’t find work that could allow her to take care of a child with such an unpredictable medical condition.

Nancy’s case highlights the growing trend of transnational families in Singapore where one of the spouses would not have the family support system here should the marriage collapses. A significant number of the residents I volunteered with at Star Shelter were foreign women with Singaporean children.

The Way Forward from Upstream to Downstream

I am hopeful, especially with this Forum, that we are addressing Homelessness from a position of strength and inclusion. We must consider a way forward that is whole of government, one that recognises that homelessness is not and must not be the responsibility of MSF and/or MHA alone. All ministries should recognise their role in protecting every Singaporean’s right to a home.. Cross-ministerial policy making will be required to address the burden of homelessness in our society. I would like to urge the Government to initiate an inter-agency taskforce. My wishlist for this taskforce would be to:

a) Commission a comprehensive study that should help us answer what structural processes and individual occurrences relate to people who become homeless, and later experience and exit homelessness. And social determinants that might inform us how we can address the challenge of homelessness more holistically. ***I understand that Dr. Ng Kok Koe has just launched Singapore’s first nationwide street count and survey of homeless persons, funded by a NUS research grant. The results should be out later this year.***I think we would all agree that we must ground our discussion for policy and community solutions on rigorous research, be inclusive of diverse views and most of all, not be afraid to listen to the evidence.

a) Review the Destitute Persons Act to de-stigmatise the homeless so we can bring more of the community forward to address this social challenge together.

b) Examine the impact on homeless children

We must own Homelessness as a society. There is an urgent need for more awareness within the private sector and even the people sector to be part of the solution for homelessness. In 2016, I intentionally took a day off during my time in Stanford for a programme to volunteer with an innovative initiative by a private company because the homelessness issue in San Francisco is infamous! This was their monthly Dignity Village where volunteers set up retail outlets from pre-loved donations, hair salons, cafes and even mobile shower rooms. We attended to the homeless people like paying customers. I became a personal shopper and fashion stylist for the day — exhausting and fulfilling all at the same time through standing all day with the non-stop patronage. If we could have an eco-system to support the homeless that is not punitive in nature but with dignity as the underlying outcome, I think we may stand a better chance of eradicating homelessness. (By the way, I’m not saying that San Francisco has solved its homeless problem, far from it!)

I wish to congratulate and commend New Hope for initiating this Forum. Hopefully, in subsequent conversations, we will also involve those conducting research on homelessness like Dr Ng Kok Hoe and Harry Tan. And more importantly, to hear from the homeless themselves. Wouldn’t we want to know how Edward, Samy, Mr Yeo, Mawar in Harry’s study have all been homeless for 20 to 28 years, and that they are only between 50–65 years of age now?

Someone once said, ‘home is a feeling, not a place’ — we are not calling this a housing security issue because that would define it as a technical problem. It’s Homelessness that we are addressing and that’s an adaptive and a very human challenge. I am heartened and hopeful that we are making the invisible now visible, with this Forum. Thank you for your interest and work in addressing Homelessness. And thank you for your kind eyes and attention.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~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 volunteerism 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).