ALTERED STATES

Help for those with no roof over their heads during pandemic

It is tough to heed the Government's call to stay home when one does not even have a place to call home, says a 74-year-old Singaporean who has been living in relatives and friends' homes like a vagrant since 2015

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

"I love taking long rides in a bus around Singapore," confides Madam Violet (not her real name).

At 74, she cuts a distinguished figure, with a shock of thick, wavy silver hair.

But the measured cadence of her voice falters when she adds: "I look out for quiet places like stairways or park benches, for the day when no one will give me shelter in his or her home."

Home - or where to hunker down to heed government injunctions - has been weighing heavily on her mind of late.

Although the Singaporean of Eurasian descent has never had to resort to rough sleeping, she was bracing herself for that prospect when she left a relative's home a month ago after an altercation.

She spoke to The Sunday Times on the condition of anonymity on April 4, three days before circuit breaker measures kicked in.

Four days ago, she finally managed to find a safe place to sleep in with the help of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

In 2015, she left the home of her daughter, who is in her 40s and married with three children. They could not get along - something she attributes to bad chemistry.

"It's either I kill her or she kills me. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate my daughter because she cannot give me shelter even in this time.

"It's complicated, you know...?" she tries to explain, her eyes misting over. "I left her home five years ago to stay with relatives because it came to a point where I could not bear to see my grandchildren suffer whenever we fought."

Attempts to contact her daughter for comments were unsuccessful.

Covid-19 has opened my eyes to the risks of wandering around, depending on friends for lodging. 

MADAM VIOLET (not her real name), who has been living in relatives and friends' homes like a vagrant since 2015

In better times, Madam Violet remembers a rose-tinted childhood in the 1950s, with a doting mother who worked as a police constable during British rule and a younger brother.

Fresh out of secondary school, she had her first relationship with a well-to-do foreigner in the 1970s. It allowed her to live the good life for more than a decade. But after she got pregnant with her daughter, he took off.

She then settled down with another foreigner and was a housewife from 1984, till the marriage ended in divorce in 1997.

She relied on her daughter and brother for support after 1997 as she did not own any property. Nor was she able to obtain financial support from her ex-husband, who had returned to his home country.

"Whatever money I had through the years, I spent it looking after my mother. She was my rock, my guiding light," she says.

But 2003, the year of the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, was a dark time for her.

Her mother died of old age-related illnesses at 86. Shortly after the funeral, she sought treatment for depression.

Then in 2008, her brother succumbed to leukaemia.

"Till today, I am taking pills for depression," says Madam Violet, who is also on medication for high blood pressure and diabetes.

In 2018, she went through a breast cancer operation.

After parting ways with her daughter in 2015, she stayed with her late brother's wife and the family of her cousin's widow in their Housing Board flats as well as with friends.

She says she tried not to stay "too long" at either place for fear of flare-ups.

"I've not seen much kindness in the last five years," she says. "Every day, it's been difficult to get up in the morning because I'm terrified that something I said or did the previous day would come back to haunt me.

"I've had my precious few blouses thrown in the rubbish chute, been greeted with black faces in the mornings and even forced to sleep on a sofa filled with ticks because I was told to share it with the family's pet mongrel."

The last straw was when one of her relatives posted a photograph of her having a meal in a foodcourt on Facebook, with the sneering caption: "Please someone find a place for this woman."

She gathered her belongings in plastic bags and left her relatives' home a month ago. An old friend allowed her to share her one-room rental flat, on condition she moved out by April 30.

Since 2012, Madam Violet has survived on about $700 a month. The bulk of this comes from ComCare, a public assistance programme for elderly Singaporeans facing financial difficulties.

About two weeks ago, spooked by the worsening coronavirus pandemic, she approached the Family Service Centre in Toa Payoh to seek help for long-term accommodation.

"If it were not for this virus, I would not have turned to the Government for help. I would still be knocking on the doors of my friends.

"Covid-19 has opened my eyes to the risks of wandering around, depending on friends for lodging," she reflects.

The MSF says it sees cases of homelessness throughout the year, every year.

According to a spokesman, MSF admitted about 320 individuals on average each year to transitional shelters and welfare homes between 2017 and last year.

Some were found to be rough sleepers (homeless people sleeping in public areas), while others were referred through social service agencies such as the Family Service Centres, depending on their circumstances.

In a bid to help rough sleepers, the MSF formally launched the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) Network last year to corral the forces of community groups and agencies.

There are currently 26 community partners in the Peers network, including Catholic Welfare Services, Homeless Hearts of Singapore and The Salvation Army.

Mr Abraham Yeo, co-founder of Homeless Hearts of Singapore, says he and some 20 volunteers "work day and night" to help elderly rough sleepers deal with the new "Stay Home" injunction.

"Most of the displaced have no homes to go to during this period and have become vulnerable because the shelters are full.

"We are in constant contact with them through their mobile phones. They are able to deal with this difficult period better, now that they know they have a whole team looking out for them," says the software developer, who co-founded the charity in 2014 to befriend those sleeping in the rough and bring them food and drinks.

Another refuge for seniors is Awwa, which runs a Senior Community Home (SCH) and provides accommodation for those aged 60 and above, who are recipients of the MSF's Public Assistance Scheme or who have no family or means of financial support.

"Our SCH occupies the first four levels of Block 123 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6, so our seniors live in actual HDB units alongside the rest of the community," says Mr Sairam Azad, deputy director of Awwa Health and Senior Care.

To safeguard their residents' health, Awwa has advised them to stay within their respective floors during the circuit breaker period.

"To keep them engaged, we have upped the number of activities conducted within the SCH, but in a socially responsible manner, as we have suspended all large-group activities," says Mr Sairam.

The average age of residents at Awwa's home is 77 years for women and 75 for men.

For Madam Violet, the pall of sadness in her life seems to be lifting, with a roof over her head and the MSF looking at how to help her further.

She recounts how her late mother taught her to be brave, "no matter what". "She said that's the most important thing. But in my life, health problems and sorrow have chipped away at my ability to be brave.

"But now, with a roof over my head, I have dignity. At my age, that's the most important thing."

• If you know of individuals or families who may need support, call the Ministry of Social and Family Development's ComCare hotline on 1800-222-0000. If you are interested to open up your premises to the homeless, e-mail msf-peersoffice@msf.gov.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline 'Help for those with no roof over their heads during pandemic'. Subscribe