We Must Own Homelessness as A Society

Published by TODAY on 26 June 2019. See published article.

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 Chinese lady 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 cover her meal costs. 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.

And how about Mariam*, an Indian-Muslim Singaporean who attended my inclusive yoga class years back at a welfare organisation in Shunfu? Fleeing from her abusive husband after 18 years, she was too afraid to go back to the 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 rough-sleeping. 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, 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 on 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 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 elderly financial insecurity.

In 2017, a 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. According to Dr Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy, this number was “likely to underestimate the actual extent of homelessness in Singapore” since it was not a nationwide count. (Incidentally, Dr Ng shared with me recently that he has just launched Singapore’s first nationwide street count and survey of homeless persons, funded by a NUS research grant in mid April and the results should be out later this year.)

The more troubling reality is that amongst those surveyed in 2017, none had sought help from shelters, and only 20% 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 over the last one to five years, and 27% have been on the streets for over five years.

In a written response to my parliamentary question last month, Minister for Social and Family Development Mr Desmond Lee shared that his Ministry has provided assistance and support to an average of about 290 individuals per year who were homeless, destitute or sleeping in public places between 2016 and 2018 through the 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 period, four Crisis Shelters assisted 190 family violence cases on average per year.

There is increased visibility to homelessness in recent years with more older persons sleeping rough in public spaces. Local media outlets have been making concerted efforts to shine a light on this issue. CNA Insider released a video titled ‘Homeless, But I’m Not A Bum’ and an accompanying feature piece debunking the common misconceptions Singaporeans have. TODAYOnline has done coverage on this as well.

Two Catholic churches, Church of St Mary of the Angels and Church of Christ the King, were also in the news recently for offering shelter with mattress and pillows to homeless people referred to them by the Catholic Welfare Services. New ground-up initiatives such as the Homeless Hearts of Singapore frequently organise outreach sessions around the streets of Singapore.

More recently on 29 April, the first ever Homelessness Learning Forum was organised by New Hope Community Services that brought together more than 200 partners from the public, private and people sectors to discuss how we can take the step forward to eradicate homelessness (I was one of the panelists).

It is immensely encouraging to see that there has been concerted efforts from the media, civil society and academics to ignite and sustain this conversation. Especially when it wasn’t too long ago that our narrative was that we did not have a homeless issue, what with a 90.7% home ownership in 2017. When visitors think of Singapore, they think of the merlion, the supertrees in Gardens By the Bay, the sandy beaches of Sentosa. The image of the homeless––their nightly routine of shuffling into public spaces––seems entirely incongruent with Singapore’s pristine image.

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.

Someone once said, ‘home is a feeling, not a place’. 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—I have always had a roof over my head which provided that feeling of safety to exercise my personal agency to recover and thrive.

If there is any country that will meet the UN 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, I agree with the theme of the Homelessness Learning Forum - 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 and/or MHA 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 an inter-agency taskforce. For example, can HDB explore a ‘fast track’ public rental policy for the homeless?

As mentioned in my speech at the Homelessness Learning Forum, I think 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. We merely address rough sleeping by doing so and not homelessness, 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 (in response to the same parliamentary question), there was an average of about 180 families in the transitional shelters and crisis shelters in each of the three years. Each year, these shelters also assisted an average of about 60 cases comprising foreigners who sought help on their own or were part of a transnational household.

We must also urge the private 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 homeless 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 have an ecosystem 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. Essentially, I am urging for a greater, all-of-society push. The onus cannot solely remain with 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 (Founder, Hush TeaBar and A Good Space), and author of 50 Shades of Love. www.antheaong.com

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.