Community must tackle homelessness: Panel

Individuals, businesses, organisations can all help rough sleepers, panellists say

(From left) Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, moderating the discussion by the panel, which included Mr Lee Kim Hua, a senior director from the Ministry of Social and Family Development; Pastor Andrew Khoo from New
(From left) Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan, Peers Office senior director Lee Kim Hua, New Hope Community Services chief executive Andrew Khoo, Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo and National University of Singapore post-doctoral research fellow Harry Tan.

The community as a whole needs to be involved to help rough sleepers stay off the streets, panellists noted in a discussion about homelessness yesterday.

They said that apart from volunteer groups, and government and social service agencies in the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) network that was launched last year, individuals, businesses and organisations are also encouraged to share their resources.

Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Peers office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, said those who had offered help to displaced Malaysian workers affected by their country's partial lockdown could also help the 1,000 or so homeless people here find shelter.

The two groups are distinct, as the Malaysian workers will have a home to return to when the border restrictions are lifted, he added.

Mr Lee called on psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors to help the homeless rebuild relationships and improve their family situations.

He also urged companies, besides donating money, to open their premises to house 10 or 20 homeless people at night, and encourage their employees to volunteer.

Mr Lee was a panellist in the discussion organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM). It was moderated by SKM general secretary William Wan.

The other panellists were Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo, postdoctoral research fellow Harry Tan from the department of sociology at National University of Singapore, and New Hope Community Services chief executive Andrew Khoo.

They discussed their experiences in helping the homeless and looked at reasons for homelessness here.

While the panellists acknowledged that there is no single reason, Pastor Khoo, who has been helping the homeless for more than 15 years, said: "Generally, people who are homeless are those who are without family support. If the family were supportive, they would have gone back home."

The panellists also debunked common stereotypes of the homeless as lazy or unmotivated, or that they had chosen to be on the streets.

Dr Tan said that many homeless people may say they choose to sleep rough because it is closer to where they work, or because of conflict at home. However, these may not really be choices, but instead reflect the limitations they face.

He said: "It shows a lack of available options to (these) people that they have to sleep outside."

A whole-of-community approach to tackling homelessness is vital, said Mr Yeo, who also emphasised the importance of building a relationship with homeless people.

He cited the story of a homeless man he had met who was initially suspicious and curt when volunteers came by. But one night, he drew Mr Yeo aside to tell him he wanted to change his life.

When asked why, the man said it was because he felt the love from Mr Yeo and the volunteers, who kept coming back to visit him.

Dr Wan noted in his closing remarks that it is not enough to help people get out of homelessness - they also need help to stay out of it.

"It's everybody's problem, and cannot be simply resolved by just giving them a place, and then walking away," he said.

"We need to stay with them, work with them and walk with them."

More coverage of the panel's discussions will be published in The Straits Times next Monday.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2020, with the headline Community must tackle homelessness: Panel. Subscribe