Rise in number of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur
At least 1,500 on the streets, says survey; many are jobless and from out of town
Mr S. Sathi moved to the big city four years ago from the Seremban rubber plantations to what he thought would be a better life as a construction worker building expensive condominiums.
But two years ago, two thieves scarred half his face with acid and took everything he owned in his knapsack, including his identification documents and savings.
The 57-year-old managed to get medical treatment, but he lost his job and has since been homeless.
"I desperately want a job. Anything also can," said Mr Sathi, when he spoke to The Sunday Times at a public square between two banks in Kuala Lumpur.
"I cannot even eat every day."
This bustling place in central KL near Petaling Street, a tourist landmark, quietens late at night.
This is when dozens of homeless people appear with their pieces of cardboard to bunk down on five-foot-ways or wooden benches, in the shadows of the city's skyscrapers.
The banks' security guards tolerate them as long as they are not violent, and sympathetic beat cops close an eye, even to the few drug addicts among them.
Most of them are jobless or looking for employment. Many are from out of town, looking for opportunities and failing.
A street survey in April by the Buddhist-run Kechara Soup Kitchen showed there were at least 1,500 homeless people on KL's streets, with two-thirds of them aged between 30 and 60.
The transient nature of the homeless means it is difficult for the authorities to keep track of the numbers.
Not all are totally homeless.
"They might go stay with friends or relatives for a while and go (back) on the streets again," said Mr Justin Cheah, project director of Kechara.
"Some get arrested for drug taking, jailed and get released, back to their old ways again."
Ms Siti Salmy Suib, whose two-year-old daughter Siti Soffea Emelda Abdullah was found beheaded in Pudu on May 31 - a gruesome incident that horrified Malaysia - is one of them.
Siti Soffea had reportedly been kidnapped by a man believed to be high on drugs during the incident.
He apparently had been in a heated argument with her mother and killed the toddler out of spite.
His body was found the next day in the Klang River.
Volunteers who knew Ms Siti Salmy said she has not been seen since the incident.
"No one knows. She actually has relatives but she just prefers to live outside," said Mr Cheah, when asked about her whereabouts.
Ms Siti Salmy, who was unemployed, had been living under a bridge near KL's main train station, which is popular with drug addicts, said the soup kitchen volunteers.
There are dozens of such spots in the capital of nine million.
Charity groups insist that the number of homeless people has been increasing due to rapid population growth, lack of jobs and high cost of living, and lament that shelters for them are severely limited.
Malaysia's economy grew 5.6 per cent in 2012. National inflation spiked from 2.6 per cent last October to 3.5 per cent in April this year.
The jobless situation, particularly for the unskilled, has been aggravated by the influx of unskilled foreign workers, who are paid lower wages.
"Population growth is too great, and most of the homeless and urban poor just don't have the basic skills and they don't know how to be presentable," said Ms Munirah Abdul Hamid, who heads Pertiwi Soup Kitchen.
Pertiwi hands out meals of meat, rice, vegetables, wafer candy bars, red bean buns and fruit juice four times a week to the homeless and urban poor in several streets of KL.
It gives out meals to 800 people a night or 12,000 monthly.
Long queues form before its one-tonne truck each time, with young children and elderly folk among those in line.
"I come here every time (Pertiwi) comes," said Mr Rajzuan Ibrahim, 40, a homeless trader who has gout and asthma. "Restaurants give food if Pertiwi is not around."
Kechara Soup Kitchen, which operates from a small shop space, gives out 10,000 vegetarian meals each month.
There are 13 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) carrying out soup kitchen programmes nationwide.
There is just one government-run shelter in KL, called Anjung Singgah, that serves as a transit home for the homeless.
Opened in April 2012, the shelter accommodates up to 76 people, allowing them to stay for up to two weeks.
Other private centres, or day-shelters, charge the homeless RM2 (about 80 Singapore cents) to rest and wash, but do not allow overnight stays.
Ms Munirah said a lot more shelters are needed to cope with the growing number of homeless people.
"These shelters must come with facilities to clean and (be) where NGOs can regularly meet them to help," she said.
But there are some who would rather stay homeless than go to a shelter or live with relatives.
Mr Jeffrey Yong, 59, a former waiter with cataracts, cannot afford to eat every day. But "I want my freedom", he said emphatically.