When a charity helping the homeless said 'no' to Minister Desmond Lee

Chairman of the Night Missions committee, Catholic Welfare Services, Thomas Tan.
Chairman of the Night Missions committee, Catholic Welfare Services, Thomas Tan.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - In March 2018, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) reached out to the Catholic Welfare Services (CWS) with a request. Its minister, Mr Desmond Lee, wanted to accompany CWS on its regular night walks, where volunteers would befriend and distribute food to the homeless.

"But we were very bold, we told the minister, 'No, thank you'," said Mr Thomas Tan, chairman of the night missions committee at CWS.

What CWS feared, Mr Tan told reporters on Monday (Dec 30), was that the authorities may come "swooping in" to forcibly remove these homeless off the streets.

This would undo the years of work CWS had spent on gaining their trust since its homeless programme started in 2014.

"(If that happened), then nobody would want to talk to CWS again. Our first loyalty is to the rough sleepers - they have entrusted their lives to us," said Mr Tan, 67.

Mr Lee saw where they were coming from.

He asked if CWS could arrange for a get-together with some of its homeless beneficiaries, and about 30 turned up in late July 2018, said Mr Tan.

The meeting went well, said Mr Tan. Mr Lee, together with officers from the MSF and Housing Board (HDB), spoke to the homeless and were attentive when listening to their problems, taking down details and following up promptly.

"He gave us the confidence that this was a man that we could trust," Mr Tan said.

In August 2018, Mr Lee and officers from MSF began accompanying CWS on its night walks, which gave them a better understanding of the challenges faced by the homeless.

CWS' fears of forced removal of rough sleepers also proved to be unfounded, and it eventually became part of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) network, which was launched last July to bring together the MSF and 25 other government agencies and community partners to help the homeless.


Now that ministries and agencies such as MSF and HDB have been given the mandate to work with groups like CWS on homelessness, the agencies have become more responsive, said Mr Tan.

Over the past three months, CWS has managed to put more than 30 rough sleepers into permanent housing, up from just a handful over the same period in the past.

"Without praising (Mr Lee) too much, for my area of helping the poor and the homeless, this is the man for the job," Mr Tan said.