Rough sleepers go unseen

The sun rises late in Singapore. It’s well after six and light is only just breaking the surface of the Merlion statue, centred in the splendour of Marina Bay. Joggers in a group bustle past the glistening Louis Vuitton building, a fitting symbol of Singapore’s luxe image. 

But nearby, also looking at this view, are 16 men who are beginning to wake on the hard benches they spent the night on. They chose to sleep here of course, because Singapore doesn’t have homeless people. That’s what we are told. As these rough sleepers begin to rise they slowly gather their belongings and slip their shoes on which are lying on the ground beside them. They stretch, awakening the muscles stiff from the night. Silently they walk away, heads down.

But they want to be there. Because Singapore doesn’t have homeless people.

This is what you hear when you mention homelessness. It doesn’t exist. Haven’t you seen the film Crazy Rich Asians? The World Population Review names Singapore as the second richest country globally in GDP per capita. Sure, there are probably a few people on the streets, but it’s not really an issue, according to some. The Housing Development Board also provides affordable and high-quality public houses for Singaporeans. More than 80 per cent live in public housing, and 90 per cent of these residents own them.

Mark Yuen is a stylist who gives free haircuts to the elderly and vulnerable. When asked if he works much with homeless citizens, he shakes his head.

“In Singapore, there isn’t really homeless,” he says. “The reason is very simple: we all carry an ID card, so you need to have a place to stay. When you ask [the rough sleepers] they will still carry an ID card and they will have an address.”

However, most homeless Singaporeans can’t return to their registered addresses for various reasons. This includes relationship breakdowns, financial difficulties and health issues. Yuen says the homeless may “want” to be rough sleepers as it is easier for them.

“They could be in transit. There are about 300,000 rental units so maybe they have a tiff with their housemate or the family and they have to move on, they [wait for] the HBD organisation to fit them in, so in between maybe they’re just roaming.”

Yet, a nationwide street count conducted by Associate Professor Ng Kok Hoe in 2021 found there are about 1,036 homeless people in Singapore, whether they be rough sleepers or in temporary shelters. In a city of nearly 6 million this is equivalent to 0.02 per cent of the population. 

It’s a small number, but it isn’t a small issue.

To address the problem, the Ministry of Social and Family Development established the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers Network in 2019. A key partner of PEERS is Willing Hearts where volunteers operate a soup kitchen that prepares, cooks and distributes meals to the homeless.

“We work 365 days a year,” volunteer Mae Zhong says. “We make hundreds of meals per hour, and about 10,000 each day.”

The charity provides food to people in more than 70 locations including the rough sleepers on the streets. More than 10,000 meals per day, yet the official stance is that there are less than 1,100 homeless citizens.

It was the morning of Hari Raya – a day for celebrating family ties and forgiveness for the Muslim community. Liyana Dhamirah was 22 and pregnant with her third child. On a day supposed to be filled with love and peace, she became homeless.

Dhamirah recalls her then mother-in-law screaming “get lost” and throwing her belongings down the stairs. Her only option was to find salvation in the north of Sembawang Beach, facing the Straits of Johor overlooking Malaysia. She and her then-husband Fazli lived in a small blue tent surrounded by eight families for three months. Occasionally they’d have to relocate to West Coast Park for a few weeks when the NPark inspectors came around handing out warnings and fines. 

“When I was kicked out, I didn’t know there were homeless people in Singapore,” she says. “I was one of those people in the dark. It’s an issue often swept under the rug. Only by the beach did I realise that there are other homeless people here with me. It was an eye-opening moment for me.”

Liyana Dhamirah at the Jubilicious restaurant. Photo: Amy Figueiredo.

Looking at Dhamirah now, you’d never believe this entrepreneur once had nowhere to go. She sits at the Jubilicious buffet at the Hotel Boss with eight family members, chatting loudly around a circular glass table. She’s offering coffee and seconds, saying everyone needs more to eat. Her whole face lights up when she speaks. But that smile disappears when she is asked about attitudes to homelessness.

“I find that people who don’t believe homelessness exists in Singapore have a lazy opinion,” she says. “They can’t see it, so it’s not there. There are still underlying issues in Singapore. That indirectly contributes to people’s opinions of not having these issues because they can’t see them. When they come across it, they’re like ‘oh, it’s just one or two handfuls of people.’ It’s not a dire situation.”

Dhamirah befriended families in the same position as her at Sembawang Beach, creating their own little “kampong” – a village. Some had been living rough for more than two years. Dhamirah resigned from her retail job two days before becoming homeless but her husband luckily managed to keep working. On good weeks, they treated themselves to canned tuna and jars of kaya spread. She tried to keep a smile on her face, but inside she fell into a depression.

Solve n+1 is also part of the PEERS program. In 2018 founder Kenneth Heng designed the Open Homes Network under this organisation, which sees community-based movement where families temporarily house people in crises. The idea came from his belief that Singapore’s homelessness situation is “unique.”

“The indication of homelessness is not of who is at a shelter. The indication of homelessness here is that loss of precious relationships,” he says.

Heng thinks the data collected by Dr Kok Hoe doesn’t accurately reflect the number of people without homes. 

“Women generally hide better because security matters to them and sometimes they have kids – you might not find them easily. You have young people that are house hopping, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t homeless.”

Dhamirah agrees it can be hard to see people who are homeless.

“You may be couch surfing. These people are in the working class, lower income threshold, and they usually work the night shifts so you can’t find them at night and in the day, they sleep. Some have jobs and are able-bodied but their wages can’t sustain a roof over their heads.

“Poverty hides in the shadows of the skyscrapers in this city.”

Liyana Dhamirah

If a low-income earner is approved for a public apartment, they may share it with three other families.

“It would be so uncomfortable living like that,” Dhamirah says. “When I finally moved into our first HDB flat, we lived with two other families in a three-bedroom apartment. My family was in the living room. I felt like I had more privacy at the beach.”

Dhamirah says the shelters, elaborate social schemes and funds – which are viewed as good solutions for rough sleepers – are more difficult than they appear.

“All these things come attached with many actions and many steps and the proof of burden lies on this person to strip down their identity so much just to get a place.”

Heng agrees, saying people in vulnerable positions struggle to get out of them despite seeking help.

“People can easily fall through the cracks,” he says. “One example is rental housing. One of Singapore’s solutions which has been very useful is to apply for a low-rental housing unit to have a safe space to stay in. 

“The wait time is six months, so then the question is where do you stay? Or are you stable enough to pick up the pen and write the application form?”

While living at the beach, Dhamirah would spend each Monday queuing at the weekly Meet-The-People sessions trying to see the minister for help. She never met him. She’d go to the Children’s Society in Yishun. The social worker said it was a long waiting list. She’d appeal for a subsidised rental. It was denied. All her pleas fell on deaf ears.

“I went to family services centres and various social service agencies. I went to the minister sessions trying to meet the minister. I climbed up a massive hill to go to the Ministry of Social and Family Development,” she says.

“I talked to a social worker who said there was quite a long list waiting for a shelter, and my best bet was to stay at a backpackers’ for $12 a night.

“I went into the bathroom and burst into tears.”

Liyana Dhamirah
Kenneth Heng talking to people in crises through the Open Home Network. Photo: supplied.

Heng says the Open Home Network has helped people get back on their feet while waiting for a permanent home. 

“We find that there’s a lot more stability and a lot more restoration [for people in crises] because they have a chance to live in a context from what they are used to. This experience is crucial because they carry that with them into their new season of a rental unit then the way they set up their new community differently.

“There’s a saying here called ‘kaypoh’ which means ‘busy body,’” Heng continues. “This is basically being interested in what other people are doing. If more people do this, that creates grounds for compassion.”

Dhamirah is an example. On December 30 2009, two strangers handing out biscuits at Sembawang Beach spoke to her. They asked questions and took down her details. The next morning, her phone blew up with calls offering what she had been fighting for – a home.

She says she is glad Singapore is starting to recognise homelessness as an issue, but the help available is only scraping the surface.  

“I can see and appreciate the baby steps Singapore is doing for homelessness,” she says. “These shelters and charities are important, but there is more that needs to be done when in terms of supporting an individual through their journey of overcoming whatever hurdles or barriers that they may face, be it structural, personally or trauma.”

Heng says being a ‘busy body’ is the best way to help the people in need.

“If more people pay attention, the issue can be fixed. More people will help, then maybe there won’t be homelessness in Singapore.”

The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.