A fresh look at homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue without a quick or one-size-fits-all solution. Some displaced people reject intervention by the authorities because they do not want to be compelled to continue living with families or co-tenants. These strained relationships cannot just be blamed on personal traits as they may be born out of deeper conflicts.

Volunteers have also found that a number of displaced people exhibit some form of mental or physical disability, and these people face challenges adapting to life in shelters.

Even the concept of a home for a displaced person may be different. For some, it is not about "owning" a place or having a roof over their heads for the night. It is about having a place where they feel safe, in control and surrounded by people they get along with.

Last year, 93 families were given access to shelters. The number of families needing such help dropped from 144 in 2013. This drop could be due to welfare officers stepping in to render aid earlier and housing policies made more flexible to meet their needs, say the authorities and stakeholders.

This is heartening because it is crucial for young children to have stable housing arrangements in order to play, study and sleep well.

While the number of displaced families needing help has dropped, the number of homeless individuals who have moved into shelters and welfare homes has remained at the same level for the past four years. Last year, 176 homeless individuals were admitted into these places.

Certainly, more shelter beds are needed. While 467 families and 233 individuals were admitted into the shelters in the past four years, the current three government-funded shelters can accommodate only about 150 families.

But the problem cannot be solved simply by flooding Singapore with shelter beds. Some displaced people do not want to be in shelters.

To navigate the complexities, there must first be acceptance that help cannot be prescribed and homelessness cannot be blamed on personal choices or weaknesses.

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'A fresh look at homelessness'. Print Edition | Subscribe