SINGAPORE: Most of them have jobs, and more than a quarter have a flat in their name, primarily rental flats.
And yet, the majority have been sleeping in public places for upwards of a year or beyond.
A street survey has provided this profile of homelessness in Singapore, one that may not quite fit the stereotype of destitute people here.
Take, for example, the finding that six in 10 of those who answered the survey were employed.
Of this group, nearly 60 per cent were working full-time, while about 40 per cent were holding part-time or casual jobs. The most common occupations were cleaners and security guards.
One-third of the respondents had been sleeping in public over the last one to five years. Another 27 per cent had made the streets their home for more than five years.
The survey done by SW101, a group of professionals concerned about social work and services in Singapore, is the first such study here, according to group member Ng Kok Hoe, a Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy assistant professor.
Highlighting the surprising finding about how many of the destitute were actually employed, Dr Ng said: "For us it came as a sharp reminder (of) people with lower skills, lower education who end up in unstable, low-paying work.
Homelessness is one of the most serious implications of this kind of wage conditions.
"It was a wake-up call for us (that) you could hold a job, and still be in such housing instability that you end up on the streets," he said, speaking at a social work seminar on Saturday afternoon.
180 IS A ‘LIKELY UNDERESTIMATION’
Known as a street count, this type of survey has been done in countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
For one night, more than 100 people, including SW101 members, staff from community organisation Montfort Care and other volunteers, fanned out across Singapore to find out how many people might be homeless.
At 25 sites - chosen based on information from social workers and non-governmental organisations - the group counted at least 180 persons, and another 29 who did not want to say they were sleeping in public. The vast majority were men.
The locations included public parks and shopping centres, where the bulk of the people were found; as well public housing blocks, pedestrian walkways and town centres.
Citing volunteers' descriptions of the conditions in which they found these individuals - which included pest-infested, uncomfortable and urine-stained areas - Dr Ng said they were surprised by the number of years some had been sleeping in places "the volunteers didn’t think was hospitable for someone to spend even a night".
For these people, he noted:
Homelessness is a chronic condition .. not a temporary measure. It has become a way of life for people who have no choice.
He also pointed out that the survey was not a nationwide count, and "is therefore likely to underestimate the actual extent of homelessness in Singapore".
AVERAGE OF 300 CASES ASSISTED BY MSF EACH YEAR
On average each year, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) assists an average of 300 cases of homelessness. These involve persons who have no means of accommodation and require housing support.
The cases exclude individuals who have a home but choose to sleep in public because of family disputes or other reasons.
“For example, some choose to sleep near their workplace for convenience or because they work shifts. This could account for the difference between the MSF’s figures and the reported sightings by SW101,” a ministry spokesperson said in reply to queries.
The total number of cases reported by the MSF has also fallen. In 2013, it stood at 321, of which 177 were individuals and 144 were families.
Last year, that figure was 269, with fewer families assisted but almost the same number of individual cases. Nonetheless, the ministry “looks into all cases” brought to its attention, “to ascertain the individuals’ situations”.
On the profile of destitute persons, the spokesperson said: “They tend to be older and may have physical or mental health conditions and have no means of supporting themselves. They’re likely to have little or no family able or willing to support them.
“As they have lower potential of securing a housing option in the long term or to live independently in the community, the MSF would admit these individuals to welfare homes.”
NOT ALL ELDERLY; FAMILY CONFLICTS INVOLVED
It is not necessarily the case, however, that homeless individuals are elderly. Detailed government figures from 2010 showed that half of those identified as being in need of shelter were aged between 41 and 59.
SW101’s street survey in March bears this out. Many of the individuals the group spoke to were of working age and in their productive years, noted Dr Ng. Minorities were also overrepresented.
Not all wished to talk, however; fewer than half of the individuals identified gave responses. They were also not asked why they were sleeping in public.
NGOs working with homeless individuals say the reasons include family conflict and relationship issues. Some, especially older men, had failed marriages.
Others had bought and sold subsidised flats twice and cannot afford another home but are ineligible for rental flats.
There is the Housing and Development Board’s Joint Singles Scheme, but it is “not easy to share an apartment with a stranger, or it’s difficult to find another single who’s eligible”, said Mr Chan Xian Jie from Montfort Care.
He leads a team of social workers from Marine Parade Family Service Centre to the East Coast Park area, where squatters have been known to camp.
There, he currently sees complex cases such as young couples who are products of dysfunctional families with problems such as drug use and violence. Some of the youths left home at the age of 18. Some even have young children.
“(The women) may qualify for shelter but would be required to split (with their boyfriends),” he noted. So they stay where they are with their children.
HOMELESSNESS NOT WHAT SOME MIGHT IMAGINE
Then there are those who do not identify themselves as destitute. Said Mr Chan:
They see homeless people as people with holes in their shirts, depend on the Government for welfare, are dirty and unkempt. Why would they want to declare themselves a destitute person?
This is a point the MSF acknowledges. “Even as we seek to provide support to the needy in our community, there are some who prefer to be self-reliant or decline assistance for other reasons,” said its spokesperson.
Homeless Hearts of Singapore, an informal group of volunteers, has likewise found that homelessness here may not look like what people imagine. (Read our previous story.)
Mr Abraham Yeo, 35, said his group sees individuals who are mainly in their 40s but also as young as their 20s, including the employed.
Some stay overnight in internet cafes in Geylang, for example, and even go online to apply for jobs. “There was once we went, and we found them to be quite good gamers,” said Mr Yeo.
Ben (not his real name), 35, is one who has slept in Lan shops.
Homeless for eight years and working as a banquet waiter for the past eight months “just to make ends meet”, he earned a diploma in tourism last year, hoping it would improve his employment options.
“If you don’t make an effort to stay competitive, then you’re going to become a dinosaur,” he said. “I can actually make a contribution to this world – change it in my own small way.”
Read more about Ben’s story on Sunday, at CNA Insider.
If you see someone in need: Call the ComCare hotline (1800 222-0000), or advise the person to approach the nearest Social Service Office or Family Service Centre.