A journey in helping the homeless in Singapore

Dr William Wan of the Singapore Kindness Movement chairs a discussion with MSF senior director Lee Kim Hua, Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo, postdoctoral research fellow Harry Tan and New Hope Community Services CEO Andrew Khoo.

It starts with befriending them, then giving them hope - but doesn't end even after they have found a home

Helping the homeless in Singapore is a long journey where one must walk with them, said panellists in a discussion on homelessness last Tuesday. This will help them not just get out of homelessness but stay out of homelessness, they noted. The discussion on the topic of tackling homelessness here was organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM). It was moderated by SKM general secretary William Wan. The four panellists were Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development; New Hope Community Services chief executive Andrew Khoo; Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo; and Dr Harry Tan, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of sociology at the National University of Singapore.

Helping the homeless begins by befriending them, and does not stop even after they have found a permanent roof over their heads.

When Homeless Hearts of Singapore volunteers approach the homeless on the streets, they first seek to befriend them, said the volunteer group's co-founder Abraham Yeo during a panel discussion on homelessness last Tuesday.

"Some people ask us, why befriending? They say, be more practical, go help them, give them money," said Mr Yeo. "It really doesn't quite work that way."

Many of the homeless have told him and his volunteers not to give them cash. Instead, they appreciated that they were treated as friends, rather than problems to be solved, and in time trust could be built, said Mr Yeo.

Giving the homeless hope begins by building relationships with them, said Pastor Andrew Khoo, chief executive of New Hope Community Services.

"One of the things we want to do is encourage more volunteers to come forward to befriend them and be a mentor to them," he said.

There are community groups and agencies reaching out to the homeless and helping to house them, said Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

The ministry's role is not to build but to facilitate what is being done, he added.

There were some things to be ironed out initially, as it was "quite usual for a community not to trust government" and the groups might have been worried that the Government was coming in to arrest the people they were befriending, said Mr Lee.

But eventually, a network was formed.

(From second left) Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Peers office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development; Mr Abraham Yeo, co-founder of Homeless Hearts of Singapore; Dr Harry Tan, a postdoctoral research fellow from the department of s
(From second left) Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Peers office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development; Mr Abraham Yeo, co-founder of Homeless Hearts of Singapore; Dr Harry Tan, a postdoctoral research fellow from the department of sociology at the National University of Singapore; and Pastor Andrew Khoo, New Hope Community Services chief executive, in the discussion organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) last Tuesday. It was moderated by SKM general secretary William Wan (far left). PHOTO: NG YEOW KIN

The Peers network was formed last year to get all those involved to work together and get the homeless off the streets.

"Many people think this job (of helping the homeless) belongs to the Government... But to be impactful, we need a 'many helping hands' approach," said Pastor Khoo.

National University of Singapore postdoctoral research fellow at the department of sociology Harry Tan said: "Homelessness is a recurring issue here... A community really helps because if we have the right people to journey with the homeless person, this really helps him or her."

 
 
 

A common struggle for the homeless is that they lack the documents required when seeking assistance, as they cannot receive letters.

"What we try to do is to help them find alternatives," said Mr Lee. "So if you cannot show me a bank statement, but if you have an ATM card, you make a withdrawal, you can see the balance on the withdrawal slip."

If the person does not have an identity card, those from the ministry together with befrienders can take him to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to get a letter to prove his identity, added Mr Lee.

The Government also funds shelters and interim rental housing where the homeless can stay before they are able to purchase their own Housing Board flats, said Mr Lee.

Social service agencies and the Manpower Ministry also help them to look for employment.

Even after the homeless are off the streets, the befriending does not stop there, said Mr Yeo.

His team of volunteers carry out follow-up visits after the person has found a place to stay.

Sometimes there are issues, such as if they cannot get along with their flatmate in the rental flat, and return to the streets.

"In fact, they become our own permanent friends," Mr Yeo added.

"Some of the ex-homeless are also joining us and befriending other homeless people as well."


Many reasons for homelessness

There are many rough sleepers who are, for a variety of reasons, unable to spend a night under a roof of their own, said Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He was moderating a panel discussion on homelessness last Tuesday.

He asked the panellists to share the reasons some people become homeless in Singapore.

Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, said: "There's no main cause for homelessness. But we do see that generally homelessness is a low-income problem."

He added that some ended up on the streets due to divorce, or because they had sold their flat and could not afford another. Others had lost their jobs suddenly and whole families could be displaced.

Mr Lee also shared a unique case he came across. He met a man in Ang Mo Kio and found that he had slept on the streets for about 20 years after selling his flat. When asked why, the man said he was waiting to receive the proceeds from selling his flat through a friend.

 
 
 

"With the help of befrienders, we took him to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board ... and realised that the money that he got from the proceeds from the sale of his flat was actually in his CPF, but he didn't know because he wasn't able to access his CPF," said Mr Lee. The man, who had over $100,000 in his account, later managed to buy a two-room Build-To-Order flat, said Mr Lee.

Pastor Andrew Khoo, chief executive of New Hope Community Services, said the homeless generally lack family support. Some had come out from prison, for instance, while others may have alcohol or drug addiction problems. A man he met had drinking issues, and ended up getting divorced and was later homeless, said Pastor Khoo.

Another reason for homelessness is mental illness, said Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo. Some, when discharged from the Institute of Mental Health, are not accepted back by their family. Others may have gambling problems and are avoiding loan sharks.

Mr Yeo said he had also come across a woman who escaped to the void deck at 3am after her landlord tried to molest her. Another woman, a single mum with an 11-month-old son, was evicted by her landlord after she was fired as she was unable to juggle work and taking care of her son.

National University of Singapore postdoctoral research fellow at the department of sociology Harry Tan said: "There's no one reason for homelessness."

He said that as a researcher, he had thought about what differentiates a person with a drug problem who does not become homeless, and a person with a drug problem who does become homeless.

Dr Tan said: "So it turns out that actually the reason is not that drug taking is the cause of homelessness.

"Homelessness occurs when people lose access to resources from work or the family, or to government assistance, because they don't know where to get it."


Adoption approach and sustained engagement

One way to have someone journey along with the homeless is to have an "adoption" system, said Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan.

Towards the end of an hour-long panel discussion on homelessness last Tuesday at which Dr Wan was the moderator, he suggested that a group of people can "adopt" one person, befriend the person and walk the journey together. They can help take care of his various needs, such as taking the homeless person to receive healthcare.

Dr Wan added: "These friends who are walking that journey (with) that person, to treat that person as part of the family, can then start getting help for this person. I think that's one way that (helping the homeless) can be sustainable."

 
 
 

Earlier in the discussion, Pastor Andrew Khoo, chief executive of New Hope Community Services, said that an effective way to help the homeless start their lives over again is to spend enough time with them for "sustained engagement".

He also said that sustained help rather than a "touch and go" approach is what is needed. "It takes time to engage them, we have to be consistent in what we do. They do also observe us," said Pastor Khoo.

"These homeless people are very much an integral part of our society," said Dr Wan.

"And until we see it as our collective problem, we will not be able to give them the housing security that they need - because they need not only to get out of homelessness, they need to stay out of homelessness."


HOW YOU CAN HELP

If you see a homeless person on the street and want to help, what can you do? Panellists at a discussion on homelessness last Tuesday shed some light on the question.

There are many things a person can do, said Pastor Andrew Khoo, chief executive of New Hope Community Services. A good place to start would be existing organisations that help the homeless.

"Usually I will invite potential volunteers to visit us and to be exposed to the work that we do to get a feel of it," he said.

Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo said his volunteer group hopes to catalyse Singapore to become a "city of refuge".

 
 

It hopes to raise awareness that as an individual, family, business or organisation, each has the capacity and capability to help the homeless reintegrate into society.

For example, churches could open their premises and organise a meal for the homeless, while businesses with job opportunities could hire them, said Mr Yeo.

Anyone can contact Homeless Hearts to share what he is able to do to welcome the homeless into society, added Mr Yeo.

Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, said people do not necessarily have to join one of the existing community groups to help.

They can approach groups like Homeless Hearts to know more about befriending and do it in their neighbourhoods, he said.

Mr Lee added: "If you find someone who needs help, of course befriend them. But after that, approach the nearest social service office or call the ComCare hotline on 1800-222-0000."

Those manning the hotline will link you with the relevant agencies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline 'A journey in helping the homeless'. Print Edition | Subscribe