Beach community finds a voice in 'town halls'

A "town hall" meeting was in progress, with lively chatter from those huddled together over dinner. But this was no government feedback or consultation session.

There was no comfortable air-conditioned room either. Instead, waves crashed on the shore, barely metres away.

Under an East Coast beach pavilion, six homeless people shared their problems and hopes with one another and social workers from the Marine Parade Family Service Centre (MPFSC), who asked for ideas on how to tackle their issues. The social workers also helped decipher official documents they had received, such as an application for a rental flat.

The monthly meetings, organised by MPFSC, have been held since last November.

Social worker Chan Xian Jie said: "We wanted them to have a say in how they would like to be helped, since they already don't have many choices in life.

"When they do something for themselves, rather than just receive food or rations, any sense of dependency is discouraged."

The centre refers them to government agencies to assist with accommodation, but the solutions do not always pan out.

Getting the group to turn up was already no mean feat. It took five years to build up trust. "They were very defensive when we first got to know them," said Mr Chan.

The social workers persevered, seeking the group out every week to find out how they were coping and what they needed help with.

Sometimes, they organised barbecues or distributed items such as insect repellent.

The trust forged enabled the social workers to try new methods of engaging and supporting the itinerant beach community, such as the town hall meetings.

The rapport also gave the social workers the rare chance to collect data, with the aim of coming up with useful services or programmes. In 2014, MPFSC completed a profile of homeless people based on cases it handled.

It is now studying how homeless people view themselves and how indicators such as violence or addiction levels differ between homeless and low-income families.

One aim is to change perceptions of homeless people.

Mr Chan mentioned seeing flags hung outside tents every National Day. "They are patriotic, too. They have their own stories and circumstances, and we want to journey with them, regardless of where they decide to stay."

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'Beach community finds a voice in 'town halls''. Print Edition | Subscribe