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Homeless in Kuala Lumpur

The growing number of homeless people highlights the need for a policy that protects their interests and looks after their welfare and security

She refers to them as her “sisters” but the five women living with Ruby (not her real name) in her rented home in Petaling Jaya were homeless and living on the street when she invited them into her home a few years ago.

“They had nowhere to go. I’d met them on the streets over the last few years, either loitering around my neighborhood or near the hospital where I go for my check-up.

“In the beginning, I’d bring them food and clothes a few times a week but after getting to know them a bit more, I felt I could and must do more. I was living on my own and had more than enough space and so I decided to take them on as boarders,” says Ruby, a 60-year-old former teacher.

The women she houses are all aged between 40 and 55. The circumstances that led to them living on the streets are different for each but they are all vulnerable and share a sense of abandonment.
Kechara Soup Kitchen provides the homeless a warm meal and clean place to dine. (The Star)
Kechara Soup Kitchen provides the homeless a warm meal and clean place to dine. (The Star)

Kesthuri, 53, was turned out by her sister who couldn’t cope with her mental health issues. Aida, who looks to be in her 70s, has no recollection of who she is or if she has any family (Ruby fondly gave her the name Aida after a dear friend). Jessica ran away from an abusive husband and was too embarrassed to return home as her family blames her for the unsuccessful marriage.

The one thing the women have in common is that they all don’t have families or friends to whom they feel they can turn to.

This, observes Justin Cheah from non-profit organization Kechara Soup Kitchen which provides food and basic medical care for the homeless and urban poor, is a common thread among the homeless.

Cheah contends that while the general perception of homelessness is that it is a self-inflicted problem rooted in complacency or laziness, most people who end up on the streets are victims of circumstance ― personal, social or economic.

Rarely, he points out, do people who experience homelessness ask the public for money; in fact, not all are jobless ― many work as cleaners or security guards or in restaurants but they just earn way below minimum wage and cannot afford the high rentals in the city.

“People assume they are lazy because they see them sleeping on five-foot ways or at bus stops during the day. But it’s not that they’re lazy. They are exhausted. It’s not easy living on the streets ... as if the cold and rain are not bad enough, they are also under constant threat of being robbed, assaulted or shooed away from their ‘living spaces’ and have to look out for each other’s safety.”

“They rarely get a good night’s sleep and feel safer sleeping in the day time. Many of them can’t hold on to their jobs because they are just too exhausted to work having had no sleep at night,” explains Cheah. He has been working with the homeless via KSK since 2007.

According to a 2010 street census by the Social Welfare Department, there are some 1,378 homeless people in Kuala Lumpur alone. This figure, however, is merely an estimate because the two-month survey, carried out with the co-operation of non-governmental organizations, was a broad-scale sampling.

The problem is largely misunderstood, asserts Rayna Rusenko, a policy researcher who has been working for the past three years with NGO Food Not Bombs.

“People who are homeless are largely blamed for (it). The media and public perpetuate myths about homeless women and men, branding them as being unmotivated people who are a burden to society.

“Stereotypes like this are harsh and inspire prejudice against people experiencing homelessness. No one has complete control over the events and outcomes in their lives. All human beings are just as flawed as they are gifted,” says Rusenko, whose paper Homelessness, Human Insecurities And The Government Agenda In Malaysia was recently published in the Asian Journal Of Social Science.

Ruby and Cheah are among the few good samaritans and NGOs who have taken it upon themselves to address the issue of homelessness by providing them food, clothing, medical assistance and shelter.

This, observes Rusenko, marks not only concern among Malaysians about people who experience homelessness but also a willingness to address the problem.

The aid provided by NGOs and samaritans is essential in helping people experiencing homelessness with their day-to-day survival.

Rusenko feels it is, however, essential for government to address the issues that underlie the problem of homelessness in Malaysia, such as enforcement and review of the minimum wage order and labor-related laws that leave workers vulnerable to exploitation or introducing unemployment or under-employment aid programs that can supplement the income of people unable to earn an adequate monthly income.

Unfortunately, such public policy is a long way off judging by a recent statement by women, family and community development minister Rohani Kassim, who said the generosity of Malaysians was a contributing factor to the problem of homelessness in the country.

She was quoted as saying last week that “The issue of beggars in this country has never been entirely solved despite all efforts and enforcement taken by government agencies. Public generosity is a major contributor to the increasing number of beggars and due to this, groups of destitute individuals become bolder and continue their activities and way of life.

“There are NGOs that provide food and feed the less fortunate in certain areas around Kuala Lumpur. It is certainly not an offence if people like to help but it’s preferable that help is directed through the appropriate channel so that the goods, money and services can really be beneficial to those in need.

“The practice of preparing and feeding the homeless and beggars should be corrected and adjusted to prevent the influx of these people in the capital.”

Cheah counters that those who are homeless often have little choice but to live or spend most of their time in public spaces.

“Who would choose to live out in the hot sun or rain? These people all have sad stories which have resulted in them living on the streets. We get to hear all sorts of stories.

“Some of them are ex-convicts who aren’t welcome or don’t want to go home, some are victims of domestic abuse who have run away from home, some were cheated and have lost all their money and are too embarrassed to return home, some just got mixed up with the wrong crowd and got into drugs, some have mental health issues which make it hard for them to keep a job.

“There are also many who are foreigners who are stuck without a visa and can’t get employment.

“There really is no single reason why people end up on the streets. It could happen to anyone. What the homeless need is help to get back on their feet. This isn’t as simple as finding them jobs. A lot of them need a lot more help. Most of them have a lot of baggage ... a lot of issues which they will have to work through before they can actually hold a job. They need help, whether it is psychological or psychiatric counselling,” says Cheah.

Rusenko, who strongly disagrees with the minister’s statements, says the first step to tackling the problem of homelessness is understanding the root issues that underlie the problem. Income insecurity, housing insecurities, low wages and poor labor conditions are a few key issues that need to be dealt with.

“Disparities that prevent rural or poor communities from accessing education, employment or upward mobility leaves some youth with little choice but to migrate to urban areas in search of work to support their families.

“Also, people with addiction disorders, mental illness or developmental disabilities are vulnerable to being homeless as few people have access to accurate diagnosis or quality treatment. The social stigma surrounding mental and psychological health issues add to the judgment against them and the challenges they face.

“These and other insecurities stem from social and economic problems.

“It is unrealistic to expect that people who are struggling with homelessness can tackle such hardships on their own,” she stresses.

Homelessness has its roots in poverty and social exclusion. Although homelessness is fundamentally a problem brought on by poverty ― where people have insufficient income to pay for housing or basic needs ― the solution requires much more than just finding them jobs, says Cheah.

“Many of them suffer from depression, mental illness and addiction. Many are unemployed, ill, have gone through family break-ups or are victims of abuse. Then there are those who are old and have no families to turn to. They need more than just charity. We need public policies and comprehensive strategies to help improve their circumstances which will get them off the streets,” he points out.

In Malaysia, homeless people come under the purview of the women, family and community development ministry, in particular its social welfare department.

The department often works with other government agencies such as the police, city hall, the labor department as well as the National Anti-Drug Agency in joint operations to get the homeless off the streets and into welfare homes or institutions, some of which offer skills training to those who can work.

The ministry initiated the setting up of Anjung Singgah, a temporary shelter for the homeless. It provides food and shelter and aims to help those experiencing homelessness get back on their feet by preparing them for the workforce and finding them employment where possible.

Run by the National Welfare Foundation (an auxiliary body aligned with the ministry), the centers are open to anyone except those with substance abuse problems or transmittable diseases ― these groups will be referred to the relevant agencies for treatment and help.

Anjung Singgah works with the National Anti-Drug Agency, the health ministry and the labor department among other agencies to provide holistic support for the homeless. There are currently three such centers ― one each in Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Kuching, with one in Penang due to open very soon.

“Bear in mind, Anjung Singgah is not a rehabilitation center, a refuge or a protection center. We are a temporary shelter. So we don’t accept those with substance abuse problems,” says National Welfare Foundation chief executive officer Rafek Abdullah.

“People who are homeless but are healthy and show that they can work ― not drug addicts or alcoholics ― are welcome. They have to be screened for us to find out what job we can match them to. We try and get them a job within two weeks unless the counsellors say they need more than two weeks. Some of them are depressed and have other social problems and so we let them stay for a month so they get more counselling,” he adds.

Rusenko feels the shelter program’s approach may not ultimately be all that helpful.

“Anjung Singgah offers a bare minimum of resources to people who have been experiencing homelessness, little more than a bed, food, and employment referrals,” she says. “It advocates ‘self-reliance’ through work as a solution to homelessness but the reality is that the jobs it introduces ― most of which are concentrated in security, car washes, and other low-income positions ― provide no exit from income and housing insecurity.

“It is overly optimistic to expect that ‘productive’ work will fix homelessness when the quality of jobs is so low. Moreover, such an employment-centered approach is too narrow.

“Homelessness is a complex issue. While many people are unemployed, there are multiple other factors to consider too ... debt, chronic illness, trauma, the need to support family ... There needs to be a long-term program or plan to ensure that a plurality of factors can be addressed together.”

Issues that contribute to the problem of homelessness need to be addressed, such as living and housing costs, low wages, poor labor conditions, as well as rural and urban disparities that limit access to education, employment and upward mobility for those from rural areas.

“Malaysia has no national system for unemployment assistance despite the fact that many retrenched workers do not receive compensation through private employment contracts. The Social Welfare Department offers only limited financial assistance to persons unable to earn a living wage, such as single mothers, senior citizens and people with disabilities.

“Unemployed people are at a high risk of losing assets and falling into poverty. Public policies or programs to supplement the income of those unable to earn an adequate monthly salary are necessary,” says Rusenko, who has also worked with homeless communities in Japan.

Rusenko feels that while the women, family and community development ministry encourages families to be responsible for the welfare of their members and take care of each other, the situation on the ground indicates that this policy is not realistic.

The first order for policy makers would seem to be: stop blaming those who are experiencing homelessness for their situation and get to the actual root of the problem.

By S. Indramalar

(The Star)
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