Call for more help as shelters for the homeless hit full capacity during Covid-19 circuit breaker period

Hundreds have been taken in as circuit breaker measures kick in but rough sleepers estimated to be in the thousands

Above: Mr Vincent Koh, 60, has spent the past two weeks sleeping on an old, thin mattress laid on the floor inside a cubicle at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter. Residents at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter yesterday. The shelter
The Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter, which was set up by social service agency New Hope Community Services last month, currently houses 64 people in 15 rooms. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

For the past two weeks, Mr Vincent Koh has spent his nights on an old, thin mattress laid on the floor inside a cubicle with barely any space left for walking.

"It's like popiah skin," he quipped, drawing a parallel between his mattress and the paper-thin skin of the traditional spring roll snack.

But Mr Koh, 60, is more than thankful to the shelter for providing him a roof over his head.

Inside a room shared by half a dozen others - each in a separate cubicle - he told The Straits Times that prior to the shelter, he had been sleeping on benches at parks and playgrounds after he lost his job as a worker at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre in February and could no longer afford to stay at hostels.

He said he entertained thoughts of ending his life when he was sleeping rough. "I was hungry and had no place to sleep. When you're hungry, you have strange thoughts," said Mr Koh, who was referred to a shelter by a social worker at the Family Service Centre he had sought help at.

Mr Koh is one of hundreds of individuals who have been taken in by shelters across the island as Singaporeans retreat into their homes this month with the circuit breaker measures kicking in.

Most of the shelters, however, are bursting at the seams trying to accommodate the homeless, estimated to be in the thousands.

The Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter where Mr Koh is currently staying at, for instance, reached its full capacity even before the stringent safe distancing measures kicked in last Tuesday, its operations executive Lim Kim Tat told ST. The shelter, which was set up by social service agency New Hope Community Services last month, currently houses 64 people in 15 rooms.

Mr Lim said he has been getting 20 to 30 inquiries a day about vacancies at the shelter since the measures took effect and hotels had to be shut down, but it had to turn people away because it was full.

Above: Mr Vincent Koh, 60, has spent the past two weeks sleeping on an old, thin mattress laid on the floor inside a cubicle at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter. Residents at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter yesterday. The shelter
Mr Vincent Koh, 60, has spent the past two weeks sleeping on an old, thin mattress laid on the floor inside a cubicle at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

"Without safe distancing restrictions, the shelter can take in between 80 and 100 rough sleepers because we can put in double-decker beds," said Mr Lim.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) told ST that it has been working closely with community partners in the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) network to add more bed spaces in their shelters, with some extending their operations 24/7 so the homeless can remain safe indoors.

MSF added that it has also worked with the Housing Board and Catholic Welfare Services to set up a temporary shelter to help these individuals.

"We will continue to work alongside other government agencies, social service agencies and community partners in the Peers network to open up more spaces for the homeless over the next few weeks, while observing safe distancing measures and the necessary precautionary measures," said MSF.

Besides the ministry, charities here are also chipping in to help the community. Homeless Hearts of Singapore, for instance, has started a City of Refuge appeal to businesses, religious organisations and individuals to take in the homeless during this critical time.

Above: Mr Vincent Koh, 60, has spent the past two weeks sleeping on an old, thin mattress laid on the floor inside a cubicle at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter. Residents at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter yesterday. The shelter
Residents at the Transit Point @ Margaret Drive shelter yesterday. The shelter reached its full capacity even before the stringent safe distancing measures kicked in last Tuesday, said its operations executive Lim Kim Tat. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

In the appeal on its website, the charity organisation wrote that the homelessness issue was "more than a national problem", but also a "humanitarian crisis in the making".

"We really need you to open up your empty churches, empty mosques, empty temples, your empty cafes and empty shops, your empty schools, your empty offices, your empty lounges and your empty flats," read the appeal.

The non-profit stated that it was working directly with MSF to vet and check each organisation and individual offering their spaces to the homeless, and that they will be guided through the necessary safety precautions.

Mr Abraham Yeo, co-founder of the registered charity, told ST: "In this time of crisis, where can (the homeless) go? Who can open the doors to them?"

He added that the City of Refuge appeal was started so that more people can step forward to do their part, and not "outsource everything to the Government".

"This is our home. We shouldn't need the Government to tell us to care for our neighbours."

If you are interested in opening up your premises to the homeless, reach out to the Ministry of Social and Family Development via MSF_PEERSOffice@msf.gov.sg

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2020, with the headline Call for more help as shelters for the homeless hit full capacity during Covid-19 circuit breaker period. Subscribe