“I’m 47 today!” She exclaims, and her eyes tear up. “I prayed to god for a miracle, and you came along.”
We all make soothing noises. It’s nothing really, Aunty. Just a few bags of biscuits. You know, to help you through the long evenings here in the park.
There’s very little light where the family is camping, so we can barely make out the expressions on their faces. Her 18-year god-daughter sits all poised and prim on the grass. She tells us she’s looking for a job, maybe as a waitress at Pizza Hut. Squished inside a smallish tent are her son and his friend. 19, and waiting to enlist in the army. They look like regular kids. One has studs in his ears. Spiky hair. He grins when you ask his name.
The family’s been living rough since 2008. A long, long time. Especially given the government’s claims that people are only ever temporarily homeless in Singapore.
“Void decks, mosques. I’ve slept everywhere,” she says.
“People stare.” Her husband chimes in. He’s a skinny man with tired eyes. A sick man, battling cancer for the last 17 years. He clearly doesn’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. Even lifts up his t-shirt to show us his stoma bag.
“Three operations,” he tells you. “Colon cancer.”
They lost their HDB flat in 2005. His health was failing and his two children from an earlier marriage decided to stop contributing to the mortgage. The family managed to get a rental flat from the government but made the mistake of letting it out and moving to another apartment much closer to their children’s school.
“After that, they barred us for five years,” she says. Her eyes well up again. “Why so long? All we wanted was shelter.”
It’s Singapore. HDB has rules against subletting flats leased from the government. Did they not know that?
You almost ask the question, but then bite your tongue when you see the look on her face. She is weary. Exhausted. They wanted to be nearer to their children’s school. Surely any parent can understand that?
“I have two other kids,” she says suddenly. “They’re living in a home now. 13 and 14. I’ll see them this weekend.”
“So hard when they left,” her husband interjects.
You ask if they are working. She’s just found a full-time job as a security guard. It pays $1,300 a month. He, on the other hand, can only work part-time. He says he used to be employed by Cisco but in 2004, they told him to leave because of his illness.
“They saw my stoma bag. They don’t like.”
They live from camping permit to camping permit. Once, they say, NParks officials came, took down their tents and confiscated their blankets. They were told they had to pay $300 if they wanted their stuff back.
“I said, OK, take. Give you lah!” For a moment, there is fire in her eyes. Then it is gone and she looks thoughtful.
“You know,” she tells us as we’re leaving, “thank you very much for coming. I don’t want to trouble you. You are here on my birthday. And you brought us this food. A present for me! I thank god for that already.”