What will it take for the homeless to have a permanent roof over their heads? The documentary Homeless in Singapore follows their group for five months, discovering loopholes in the system as they pursue their goals.
Derrick A Paulo
SINGAPORE: When Hamad Shukri got divorced and sold his marital flat, it was the last time he had a roof over his head.
After paying his ex-wife $150,000, paying off the loan and returning $50,000 (plus interest) to his Central Provident Fund (CPF) account, "he didn't even have money to pay an estate agent."
The 64-year-old has been homeless and has been sleeping outdoors for about six years.
For 82-year-old Yeo Aik Koon and her boyfriend, they had only recently been sleeping outdoors. They rented a room, but when the lease was up, they moved out.
"The pandemic made a lot of young people rent houses, so they were competing with us and we weren't able to rent," Yeo said.
The couple slept on cardboard outside the building's electric pumping station in Serangoon Central.
To avoid being seen by "too many people", they left their sleeping quarters at 06:00, stashed the carton in a nearby fire hose box and returned at 23.00. it was fine,” Yeo said.
When you don't have a home to return to, you have to adapt to your surroundings. You have to do everything to come to terms with it'.
This routine lasted two months, so "passers-by complained". "Some people saw us sleeping there when they went to morning practice and they were not happy," Yeo said.
"The police came and told us we couldn't sleep outside the drinking room anymore."
At this point, social workers approached the couple to help them.
In a city full of homeowners, Yeo and Hamad are part of a largely invisible homeless population.
A nationwide street census last year found 530 people were sleeping homeless, while a 2021 study by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy found 420 homeless people were in shelters. In 2019, there were 921 people sleeping in shelters homeless and 65 people.
The overall number of homeless people "remained constant," noted Harry Tan, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies who has studied homelessness for eight years.
However, an increasing number of them are moving into transitional housing, which is usually converted from old housing to the Housing and Development Authority (HDB). There are 680 units, each shared by up to six residents, serviced by three operators.
How hard is it to get out of homelessness? A documentary in three partsHomeless in Singapore, followed five people and one family for five months to see what it might take to achieve that goal.
With the help of friends and social workers, they must bypass the system's limits. Some even face eviction from the shelter.
WHEN APARTMENT IS EXCLUDED
The most sustainable housing option for many homeless people is rental housing, which is highly subsidized. But not everyone qualifies.
Take Darius (not his real name) for example. The youth, who had been homeless for nine months when CNA first filmed him, said he was "kicked out of the house" after getting into trouble because of the curfew.
WATCH: Part 1 - How we became homeless in Singapore (46:33)
"After (10:30 p.m.) when I got home, (my parents) wouldn't open the door for me. I just slept until the next morning," the former gang member said.
He added that this was true even when he lost his wallet. "My mom just said, 'I don't care.' If you don't make it to 10.30, you won't be home again. Then I say "Okay."
As a single person under the age of 35 who is neither a widower nor an orphan, he is not entitled to any housing allowance without family.
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Without that criterion, "you end up with 16-year-olds coming to you and asking to rent an apartment," says Lee Kim Hua, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Social Development and Family (MSF), who has dealt with homelessness for five years year. years.
"A young man should be with his family. For me, it's very simple: go home... apologize and go back to your room.
"If they're in danger... I'll put them in a shelter overnight. But the next day... I'll say, 'Listen, you're going home.'
And if there is no such possibility, "we will invite social workers to work with them," he added. "I hope they can go to work and ... rent an apartment on the open market."
Darius asked his social worker for help and ended up staying at Yio Chu Kang Chapel, one of the homeless shelters.
There are 22 of these Safe Places to Sleep (S3P) - which are free and mostly found in local clubs and places of worship - as of March. Each shelter determines its opening hours based on the basic functions of the premises.
"If they're running a preschool and preschool classes start at 7:00 a.m., the sleepers will (probably) have to leave ... by 6:30 a.m.," Lee says.
There are also rules for when homeless people can return to the shelter at the latest, e.g. at 10.30 p.m. in the Yio Chu Kang Chapel.
But despite several admonitions, Darius "constantly" broke the rules by entering the shelter during hours when the shelter was closed and returning late by climbing through the gate "in the middle of the night," said Samuel Lin of Bless Community Services, the shelter's operator .
"We need to establish a proper procedure," the deputy chief said. "If not, the whole S3P will be in a mess."
Darius was discharged and could no longer enter the shelter.
A CONGRATULATION, BUT NOT A HOME
Surviving a stay in a shelter is not necessarily easy, even for those who do not suffer from the rash of youth.
SE: Del 2 - Surviving Homeless Shelters i Singapore (46:59)
"People-to-person conflicts are actually quite common because ... we're still a very small space," said Edward Wang, Bless Community Services' social care coordinator.
"And we have people (from) different backgrounds — at different ages, at different stages, with different challenges — all gathered in one place."
Roselan Abdullah, 51, who had been homeless for five months when CNA first filmed him, cited "minor problems" such as "opening the window, doing laundry, using smelly medicine, praying."
"Misunderstandings are inevitable," he said. "There are so many different opinions among us homeless people."
He wanted to know. There was a dispute between him and another person, Tok Kah Fatt, over laundry at the S3P@Inspire shelter in Balestier.
In their hostel, one washing machine is shared by four people. There is a list to prevent conflict, but when someone used the slot machine on Sunday, which was not allowed, the two men started pushing each other.
Tok, 67, was expelled after being accused of throwing punches, although he claimed to be innocent.
The rules of the shelter also bothered Roselan in his job as a food delivery man. The time is 10:30 p.m. curfew, but would prefer to work until midnight.
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"Sometimes I feel like curfews don't make sense," said Roselan, who rides an electric bike and parks it nearby. "I can earn more at night."
There are days when he can earn just over SGD 20, but if he works hard and remains patient, he can earn SGD 1,500 a month, he said. "Just rent a subsidized HDB rental flat," he added.
"But it's definitely not enough for me."
He said he had spoken to shelter staff about the curfew, but the curfew extension had not been approved.
Wang explained why, "Some of our employees may work very early in the morning. … Some of them may be sick. They also need rest."
While Roselan was annoyed by the shelter's lack of freedom, Tok was worried about not having the money to live outside as he paid for a bed in a hostel while waiting to be taken in by another shelter.
He receives a monthly CPF payment of S$890. And staying at the hostel cost him S$35 a day plus an extra S$5 on Fridays and Saturdays.
"I can't withdraw any more," he lamented as his bank balance dropped to A$20 - what was supposed to be his daily budget. "If I still stay (in the hostel), I won't have anything to eat."
According to his social worker, Vincent Soh, from the Kampong Kapor Family Service Center (FSC), applications for shelter usually take one to four days.
But for Tok it took longer and he had to stay in the hostel for almost two weeks. "So the FSC stepped in to provide short-term financial support as well as ... food rations," Soh said.
Tok had been homeless for five months when CNA first filmed him. He worked as a forklift operator in container yards for 25 years before getting married in the Philippines where he lived for 23 years.
A year after the birth of his daughter, his wife began to suffer from diabetes.
"I had no choice (but) to sell my house (in Singapore)," he said. "I didn't work in the Philippines. I took care of my daughter and wife."
Before his death, he made this promise to his wife: "I will raise (our child) and I will let her (be) independent."
As planned, he returned to Singapore last year to retire, but found it "difficult" to rent a room.
"By reviewing his income and expenses, we noticed that life in the open market would not be very sustainable for him," said Soh, who was provided by the FSC with a referral to a temporary shelter.
Transitional homes are funded by Doctors Without Borders, with priority given to families in need of urgent help.
However, Tok was not accepted as a tenant because he had a house in the Philippines. "He was advised to return to the Philippines while awaiting the application process to rent an apartment," Soh said.
At that time, FSC helped refer him to a shelter instead.
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One of the families living in the transit hostel is 58-year-old Eco Susana Salo and her two children, whose father threw them out of their apartment one night after a domestic dispute.
At first they lived with one of the children's uncles. But six months later he decided to sell his house and they had to move.
"That's ... when I started to panic," Salo said. She called their social worker and that's how they got into the current shelter.
Unlike dormitories, transition homes have neither curfews nor opening hours. It is operator furnished and Salo's rent is A$100 p.a. month.
Her unit has two bedrooms. But her family can't use the other room because new tenants can move in at any time.
There are also some rules like no smoking, no pets and no visitors.
"Sometimes it's quite inconvenient because I can't take (my girlfriend) home to watch movies," said Salo's 21-year-old son, Muhammad Raihan. "I'm with her most of the time."
The main reason only registered tenants are allowed inside is "to ensure that tenants live in a safe environment," said Nur Rifqah Samat, an AMKFSC Community Services social worker at the Transition Plus shelter.
Her charges have been living at the shelter for over two years, but they still don't feel at home there. "We can't decorate, hang things, hang pictures," Raihan said. "No TV".
Salo added: "My wish now is to have my own apartment for rent."
WHEN THE LAST STEP IS THE HARDEST
Until recently, however, Salo faced several obstacles on the way to his goal.
Her divorce case in the Syariah court dragged on and she "tried to contact (her) ex-husband" to have her name removed from the registration of the purpose-built apartment. His tenacity has thwarted an application to rent an apartment.
The breakthrough came only during the recent mediation session. "(In) the two years of my divorce process, this is the first time he has tried to comply with a court order," she said.
As he is not Singaporean, she also had to wait until Raihan turned 21 before she could apply to rent an apartment from him, which they have since done. Their waiting time for housing can last "from several months to even a year" - assessed their social worker.
"The longer you've been homeless, the more you have to do your best to find a home for your family," Salo said. "It doesn't mean that being homeless is the end of your life."
Tok also applied to rent a flat with one of his social worker's other clients under the Joint Singles Scheme.
He's managed to move into a new shelter, and if his joint tenancy application is approved, it could be eight months to a year before it's time to choose a one-bedroom apartment from the available units.
WATCH: Part 3 - How to get out of homelessness? (46:31)
Under the program, all applicants must apply in pairs. It also existsa pilot program run by the operator, which allows singles to search without having to find a roommate first. The operator will assign them roommates taking into account factors such as gender, age, ethnicity and lifestyle.
"It's better (if) we rent (space) our own. We can come back anytime, leave anytime - Tok said. "You don't have to follow the shelter's schedule."
It is a feeling that Roselan likes to share. But what he is unhappy about is the long wait that includes the application process.
He and his friend struggled with the process and feared their latest joint application would fail again.
They are both divorced and must provide relevant court orders proving that they no longer own the home. And in his friend's case, the divorce was 20 years ago.
The kind of delay they endured is something Tan has observed. "You can apply for certain services ... but you still have to find your records. You still have to replace them," the scientist said.
"This dedicated time adds to the process of getting out of homelessness."
For Darius, left with his girlfriend and then a friend after leaving the shelter, uncertainty can give way to hope as he waits to be called up for National Service (NS). He has already gone for a health check.
"He will have shelter in the army and (maybe) have the opportunity to stay there for the weekend," said his mentor, Augustus Low.
"I hope he will be able to save enough (from his NS allowance) that after his NS ... will (will) have a pool of money (that will allow him) to consider renting space out."
As for Yeo, it looks like her days of renting out on the open market — or sleeping outdoors — are coming to an end.
She was moved to a night home and then a transitional home, and now she and her boyfriend are looking for an apartment to rent under the Joint Single Scheme.
Her case is "difficult" because she owned private property about 20 years ago, said Serangoon Moral FSC's Veronica Koh, a social worker.
The money from the sale has since been "used up", Yeo said. But he must have documents proving that all receipts were used to qualify for public rental housing.
While social workers are now helping her deal with her housing and financial situation, friends like See Lay Khim are trying to convince Hamad to also apply for an apartment.
"He doesn't want to stay with anyone, so that's our problem," said See, who is part of AMKSS Social Move, a group of volunteers from Ang Mo Kio High School graduates.
Hamad's reason is that he raises birds to sing. "Anyone (who) stays with me (would) definitely (would) have a problem with it," he said.
He is not a homeless homeless person. The housing needs of the homeless "are not easy to address", said Agnes Ng, lead volunteer at AMKSS Social Move, "because the number of apartments for rent is limited".
She said her group's success rate was 20 percent over the past three years.
Tan hopes Singapore is up to the challenge. "If someone wants to be left alone ... then it's our responsibility to develop innovative shelters that meet those needs, rather than (saying), 'No, we can't do that,'" he said.
Actually,HDB is piloting the showoffers single rooms with shared bathrooms, converting the former Anderson Junior College hostel. It will be ready at the end of the year.
The type of outdoor sleepers that worries Tan the most are people who have been homeless for more than a year.
He said: “When people sleep outside for long periods of time, they start to realize 'I can actually get used to this life'.
"If you're used to something, and we're talking about an older population here ... then change becomes kind of scary."
For Hamad, he would like to have his own place to rent, but if not, he said he would still live outside. However, he had to change his sleeping place after someone complained to the city council.
He moved from under the tree to a birdhouse that one of his friends, a co-founder of the Birdsong Club, had split in two so that Hamad could sleep.
That night, as he prepared to give himself up, he said, "This is the happiest day of my life."
Watch the documentaryHomeless people in singapore here.
You can also see:
Housing the homeless: encouraging Singaporeans to open their homes
I shared a house with a stranger for 1.5 years | Housing for the homeless
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