In 2006, we moved to Hong Kong and spent the better part of our year there getting to know a group of homeless people. Their stories were complex, their personalities as diverse as their backgrounds.
There were 19-year-old boys and 65-year-old grandfathers. Truck drivers, deliverymen, chefs, waiters, factory workers, failed businessmen… you name it. Some had never attended school. A few had been to college. There were gambling addicts, and recovering drug users. One man we met was battling mental health issues. Still others had simply lost their jobs and fallen on hard times. Some people were easier to like. They genuinely wanted to turn their lives around and were willing to do whatever it took. But there was also a handful who could not be helped, was impossible to help. They were lazy and manipulative and had adopted a crutch mentality.
The point I’m trying to make is that no two homeless people are alike. There’s no single reason why they’ve ended up on the streets; no one-size-fits-all solution to all their problems. It’s like that in Hong Kong, like that in Singapore. Like that the world over.
Surely anyone who’s bothered doing any research into the issue of homelessness should know this? Surely The Straits Times’ Radha Basu should know better?
In a recent article, Ms Basu points out that the number of homeless people in Singapore has doubled in the past two years, and that in 2009 alone, some 300 individuals and families sought help from the government.
All fine and good. But then she jumps straight to this conclusion:
“Unlike in some countries, where people are often too poor to rent – let alone buy – their first home, homelessness in Singapore is often the result of personal irresponsibility, stemming from avarice or divorce and dysfunction.”
Reading between the lines, Ms Basu is essentially saying that people who wind up on the streets in Singapore deserve to be homeless. It’s a standard line the government’s been trotting out for the past few weeks now. The typical tent-dweller in Sembawang, or East Coast Parkway, or Changi or wherever, is according to them, someone who has sold his HDB flat at a profit, squandered the cash, and thus has no choice but to be homeless. He has no one to blame but himself for his lack of financial planning.
Ms Basu expands the definition a smidge by including “divorce and dysfunction” as possible reasons for homelessness. As if people who refuse to stay married should somehow expect to be thrown out onto the streets. It is not entirely clear what she means by “dysfunction”.
Somewhere in the middle of her article, Ms Basu states that “further changes – both at the personal and policy level – could help nip this nascent trend of homelessness in the bud.”
I love how she calls it a “nascent trend”. It’s like how the government likes to describe Singaporeans living in shelters as “temporarily homeless”. As if poverty isn’t a genuine problem here. As if the destitute never existed before… now.
It’s a myth so well perpetuated, most Singaporeans believe it to be the truth. I remember telling Wai Tung, the social worker in charge of the Hong Kong Dawn Homeless Football Team, that there were no homeless people in Singapore.
The look on his face was priceless.
“But that’s impossible!”
“No, it’s true!”
He must have thought me terribly deluded then. How right. Over the past eight months, I’ve learnt that our homeless shelters are bursting at the seams, that the happy people hanging out at campsites in parks and beaches actually have nowhere else to go, that some families sleep in the back of lorries, that hundreds of abandoned or abused migrant workers huddle up at night in the alleyways and back lanes of Little India.
And that no two stories are ever the same.
Ms Basu brings up the element of personal responsibility. Sure, every adult is responsible for his or her own actions. Take a financial risk? Bear the costs. But there is a growing sense that the system penalises too many too severely, and helps too few.
Mrs B and her cancer-striken husband. The pregnant young mother camping out with her two kids on Sembawang Beach. The divorcee whose ex-husband cheated her off her share of the proceeds from the sale of their HDB flat. The couple who lost all their savings in a failed business venture. These are real life people whom we’ve actually encountered in the past three months alone. Why does our government think them undeserving of help? The answer seems to lie in this overwhelming fear that the poor will develop a crutch mentality and become a burden to the state and the taxpayer.
No one’s saying that the homeless should be coddled. No one’s suggesting anyone go on the dole here. But surely, we can give those in need the barest necessities to help them get back on their feet?
Homeless shelters in Singapore already operate on this philosophy. Three families typically share a three-room HDB flat – hardly the most comfortable arrangement. Facilities are basic and everyone is expected to follow a set of house rules. A community worker once told me the idea was to create a safe environment – a place for families in crisis to evaluate their options and find solutions – but not one that would induce the homeless to decide to stay on forever.
Why can we not have more such shelters?
Tucked deep within Ms Basu’s article are three paragraphs that really, should have been the cut and thrust of her entire story:
“Meanwhile, families who are already homeless or on the verge of losing their homes also need more help.
The only two temporary shelters for such folk are packed, with dozens of families on the waiting list. More shelters are needed so that the children of the homeless, in particular, have a home, as social workers sort out the mess in their parents’ lives.
The allocation of rental flats could also be made more flexible and fast for those who lose homes through no fault of their own – such as the elderly, divorced mothers and, above all, children. Contrary to popular belief, not all those in danger of losing their homes are feckless folk caught in an endless cycle of over-consumption.“
Yes indeed. For now though, for a lot of these families, no help is forthcoming. Their last resort is a tent on the beach, or in a park. Desperate measures. Yet we’ve heard how NParks officials seem to enjoy clamping down on these campers, unzipping their tents to check in on them, confiscating blankets and other property when they “breach rules”, slapping fines on already penniless people, and driving them away when they overstay their permits.
Are appearances that important? Why work so hard to preserve a myth? Are we that bent on deluding ourselves?
Wai Tung is right. It is impossible for a country to not have any homeless people. Acknowledging their presence is not a sign of weakness. Taking some collective responsibility for their plight doesn’t mean we descend into welfarism. It merely means we’ve evolved, that we’ve learnt to be a little bit more compassionate, that we understand that the poor and homeless are not undeserving of help.