Finding the way home

Mr Gary Tay and his wife, Christy Asiddao, with Stacey, their daughter. The young family lives in an HDB "interim rental housing" (IRH) block. The subsidised flats are meant to be temporary homes while families sort out their problems and move on to
Mr Gary Tay and his wife, Christy Asiddao, with Stacey, their daughter. The young family lives in an HDB "interim rental housing" (IRH) block. The subsidised flats are meant to be temporary homes while families sort out their problems and move on to permanent lodgings, but that is often not the case. ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA
Mr Gary Tay and his wife, Christy Asiddao, with Stacey, their daughter. The young family lives in an HDB "interim rental housing" (IRH) block. The subsidised flats are meant to be temporary homes while families sort out their problems and move on to
Children in the open space in front of one of the two IRH blocks.ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA

Project aims to help families who are down pick themselves up and be self-reliant

Four months short of his 21st birthday, Gary Tay is still too young to vote. Yet, he is already a father.

Chubby, cheerful Stacey was born last October. Mr Tay's wife, Christy Asiddao, a Filipina who grew up in Singapore, was just 17 when she gave birth.

Mr Tay, who dropped out of school after his N levels, works full time as a photographer on Sentosa to support his young family.

His wife, who is on a Long Term Visit Pass, lost her job as a waitress last month. She says the restaurant lost some local workers and could not keep foreigners because of tightened foreign worker quotas.

Her visit pass is up for renewal next month and she needs a new job. Baby Stacey's childcare subsidies also need periodic renewal.

Not yet quite adults themselves, both husband and wife do not have enough parental support. Helping them sort through their various problems are professionals from Pave, a social work agency. The couple live in an HDB "interim rental housing" (IRH) block in Siglap. Like them, the other residents of the subsidised rental flats do not have homes of their own and have nowhere else to live.

Unlike regular HDB rental flats whose occupants can stay indefinitely, the IRH scheme is meant to be temporary accommodation while families sort out the complex challenges they face and move on to more permanent homes, hopefully within a year. But many stay longer, short of cash and support. Help is available, but navigating the schemes can be hard.

Over the past three years, a community project at two IRH blocks in Siglap has given families new hope. It is led by Pave with support from more than 10 community groups and state agencies. The local South East Community Development Council (SE CDC) acts as the key coordinator.

"Many of the families who move into the IRH have been homeless at some point and feel they may never own their own homes again, but this need not be the case," says Pave executive director Sudha Nair, who leads the team.

Since "Project 4650" - named after the blocks - was started in 2012, about 1,000 households have called Blocks 46 and 50 home. Most have since moved out to more permanent rental flats, with a small but significant one in three families achieving what they never thought possible - being home owners again.

The project was initiated by the area's Member of Parliament, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, a qualified social worker and Mayor of South East District.

Also Minister of State for National Development, in 2009 he worked on the HDB team that conceived the IRH scheme to deal with some of the most down-and-out cases seeking help with housing.

The idea was to provide rental flats but encourage families to work towards moving out to more permanent homes.

Many families had sold their homes to pay debts and bills. Under HDB rules, those who have sold a flat cannot apply for subsidised rental housing for 30 months after the sale. Before arriving at the IRH, some would have moved many times, staying with relatives or friends for weeks or months.

"With the IRH project, they had a roof over their heads, but the nature and complexity of the problems these families were facing were not properly understood by the community," says Dr Maliki.

He started by getting social workers in three Family Service Centres to help these families but soon realised that due to the nature of the cases, proximity of social services to the families was critical.

He convinced the Ministry of Social and Family Development to fund a dedicated social service agency to work onsite with the families.

"By the time they come to the IRH, these families may have exhausted a lot of the goodwill of family and friends. Many were grappling with uncertainty," he says. "We needed social workers to be anchored in the community to show them support."

Pave, an Ang Mo Kio agency best known for its family violence work, set up office at the Siglap Community Centre, right next to the two blocks. It found many families struggling with three or more underlying problems - short of money, having difficulty with childcare or caregiving arrangements, or dealing with health issues. Also, the children, though living in the east, may still be attending school in the west where they used to live. Single parents and those with mental illnesses had their own sets of difficulties.

The social workers aim to increase the "social functioning" of these families, Dr Nair says. This means, among other things, ensuring children are well looked after, helping the adults with pressing problems, getting appropriate aid, securing better jobs, managing finances better and setting a target to get a flat, if they can afford one.

Fostering self-reliance is important, especially since many families are still young. "The role of social work agencies is not just to connect residents to state aid but to resolve the problems that made them depend on aid in the first place," says Dr Nair.

Social worker Nazeema Bassir Marican says she starts by asking families about their hopes and dreams. "We focus on hopes and goals, not problems," she says. "And then draw up plans to achieve them."

Pave estimates it takes an average of nine months to help a family take the necessary steps to self-reliance.

While families seeking emergency help are not turned away, they have to do their part for the collaboration to work long term. "You have a right to decide if you want to help yourself," says Dr Nair. "But you cannot expect to get handouts continuously unless you work to improve your situation."

General manager Kia Siang Wei of the SE CDC says it is this "focus on personal effort and responsibility" which sets Pave's work apart. "Rather than just provide handouts, Pave takes the harder route, explaining to these families how they can achieve self-reliance."

So instead of automatic Giro transfers from state and charity social assistance schemes, clients get the money only if they comply with what they had agreed to do. For instance, there is help available from The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, but a family must show that the children are attending school regularly.

Such tough love is fraught with the risk of failure and, indeed, some families rebuff the Pave social workers and say they would rather approach other agencies where it might be easier to get aid.

One man was told he would help his family considerably if he cut his monthly cigarette bill of $330 and Internet charges of $300. He refused. The Pave social worker persisted in calling once a month, just to stay in touch. "The man would often scold my colleague and bang the phone down," says Dr Nair.

But after eight months, he turned up at Pave's office to apologise and seek help. "He had a health scare and wanted to quit smoking. He also wanted to work towards getting a new home," says Dr Nair. It proved to be the turning point.

Arrangements have also been made to help meet the housing, healthcare, employment and childcare needs of residents.

The Pave social workers meet HDB officers at least once a month to work on clients' housing issues and to explain why a family may deserve help despite not meeting HDB's criteria. An HDB spokesman said: "Through these meetings and house visits with social workers, our officers gain a better understanding of the key issues faced by the households."

The CDC also roped in other agencies - including the various Siglap grassroots groups, the Workforce Development Agency and the local Social Service Office. The local grassroots help organise house visits and work with single mothers, among other groups. Malay self- help group Mendaki holds parenting workshops and the Children's Society counsels children with anger-management issues.

People living in the area have pitched in as volunteers. Among the key volunteer-run programmes is the Homework Cafe, where children from the IRH blocks get help with school work.

Mr Lim Yuan Qing, 28, who is studying for a master's degree, has been a regular at the Homework Cafe. He got to know about Project 4650 when he called the CDC to ask about volunteer projects that "mitigate income inequality".

"Before visiting the blocks, I had no idea there was so much need at our doorstep," says the son of a bank officer who grew up in a five-room HDB flat in nearby Fengshan. "Instead of just being concerned about people being left behind, I wanted to help out."

Still, turning lives around is hard work. For every family that successfully relocates to their own home, there are others that move to a rental flat or stay on at the IRH.

Young father Gary Tay, for example, has been living in the Siglap IRH block for more than three years. He moved there in 2012 with his grandmother and two older brothers after their father sold their flat to invest in business.

He says their mother left them when they were small and they were raised by their grandmother, as their father had a second family. The brothers were barely out of their teens when their girlfriends got pregnant. At different times, each lived in the IRH flat with his young family. Last year, the two older brothers and their girlfriends were arrested for having drugs in the flat.

Mr Tay, a hands-on dad when he is home from work, is determined to carve out a different path for his family. Pave social worker Ng Huei Min has been helping to smooth the journey for them.

She first helped Mr Tay's 76-year-old grandmother move to her daughter's place as she was keen to live with her daughter. Then she helped Mr Tay take over the IRH flat, sought aid from the Social Service Office when he was in NS and helped him attend training to improve his job prospects. When his wife was ready to work this June, Ms Ng sourced for infant care.

"We don't apply for them, but we apply with them - showing them how to navigate the processes, so they can do it on their own should the need arise again," says Ms Ng.

Mr Tay is now eager to get a new home. With the grants available for first-time buyers, he reckons his family can get a new home in a year or two. "I just want to ensure that my daughter gets a better life than I did," he says, sitting in his pink-walled bedroom surrounded by photos of little Stacey. "And I am willing to work towards that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Finding the way home'. Print Edition | Subscribe