Photo credit: DEREK LIM


Homelessness In Singapore

Five times a week, 25-year-old Derek Lim hangs out with his friends at void decks and other secluded spots from 9pm till midnight. Since early 2015, he has gotten to know many people this way and made some close kakis.

But Derek doesn’t chill till the wee hours purely for fun.

His nocturnal social habits differ from the typical Singaporean youth because his friends are exclusively rough sleepers – or individuals without homes. The Social Work Associate and part-time SUSS student volunteers with Homeless Hearts of Singapore, a charity whose primary focus is to befriend rough sleepers in Singapore.

Reasons for rough sleepers and homelessness in Singapore

First things first: terming all who live on the street as ‘homeless people’ is inaccurate and reductive. Derek explains that at Homeless Hearts of Singapore, volunteers use the term “homeless friends”. But ‘rough sleepers’ is a preferable term as not all rough sleepers in Singapore are homeless.

“Some of the [homeless friends] do have a place to stay. But they choose to stay outside due to a variety of reasons. It could be because their place of work is very far from their residence and it’s too inconvenient to keep travelling to and fro. Sometimes, they prefer freedom and independence, and don’t want to rely on their family for sustenance and a roof over their head.”

Singles who rent one-room or two-room HDB flats under the Joint Singles Scheme might not get along with their flatmate. Their unwillingness to live with others, be it strangers or kin, for fear of conflict may prevent them from sleeping at one of the homeless shelters run by NGOs. When that happens, an individual might also prefer to sleep on the streets.

However, Derek goes on to say being a rough sleeper by choice is unusual. There are a plethora of reasons why a person becomes homeless. Some common causes include:

  • Being chased out of their homes due to family disputes
  • Abuse at home (especially if they’re women)
  • Being unable to pay rent
  • Ineligibility for housing schemes due to their marital status (e.g. undergoing divorce)

What he does at an outreach

On a typical night out, Derek arms himself with buns and snacks. With a group of volunteers, he approaches rough sleepers and checks on them. Most of the rough sleepers are middle-aged Malay and Chinese ‘uncles’.

The volunteers will then listen to their homeless friends’ problems and try to help them by connecting them to the relevant government agencies and social service organisations.

Other times, their issues could be more straightforward, such as applying for SingPass or other tasks which require access to the Internet or a computer.

Most of the people Derek speaks to have known him for a while and are comfortable talking with him. The many evenings spent getting to know the rough sleepers has drawn Derek closer to them, with Derek even receiving an invitation to one of their weddings.

“We usually give them some food, chit chat with them to get to know them better. We’ll ask general questions like ‘How’s your day?’, ‘Have you had dinner?’ If we meet someone new, we’ll approach them as well and see if they’re open to talk. Not everyone needs our help or is ready to accept help, and we have to respect their choices and decisions.”

Again, Derek emphasises that the organisation’s primary goal is to befriend rough sleepers, not to be ‘heroes’ and ‘save’ them. This point is stressed during the briefings before the volunteers set off on their night rounds.

“It’s about offering them what they need, not what you think they need. We’re not here to go into their lives and tell them to change. They don’t need your pity. That’s why it’s important to hear their stories first.”

Growing through volunteer work in Singapore

Derek was 16-years-old when he volunteered for the first time. He was a shy, reticent boy who kept to himself. After his O-levels, he prepared meals and packed food for the low-income and underprivileged elderly groups at Willing Hearts for a few months. He realised he had found a meaningful and enjoyable way to spend his spare time.

Over the years, Derek progressively volunteered with a variety of groups and his confidence grew. Through volunteering, he became a self-assured, empathetic young man who was comfortable speaking to anyone.

Eventually, he focused on Homeless Hearts of Singapore as he felt the group’s vision was especially significant and aligned with his volunteering goals.

“There is an emphasis on befriending the people you help and building a relationship with them. Seeing them as [homeless] friends puts us on an equal footing rather than helper and helpee. Because when you volunteer, you don’t just give, you receive and grow too [by learning] from other people from other walks of life.

“Normally, our homeless friends come back to the same spot. But sometimes, our homeless friends suddenly disappear. It’s like when one of your friends suddenly MIA (missing in action); you’re worried about their safety and wonder if they’re okay. Personally, I feel sad ah. But I comfort myself knowing that we’ve had a friendship and journeyed together [in life].

“A common stereotype is that [rough sleepers] are people with problems, but that’s not always true. I always say homelessness is not a problem to be solved, but people to be loved.”

Helping persons who are homeless in Singapore

In our society, there is stigma and a lack of awareness as to what causes homelessness. Rough sleepers are excluded from mainstream society and seen as a nuisance. However, this creates a catch-22 situation.

Derek counters that many of their homeless friends end up as rough sleepers because they lack relationships; they don’t have enough social support and resources to draw upon. To help rough sleepers in Singapore, we need to see them first as people and part of our community. They deserve to have friends and to be loved.

If you see a rough sleeper in your neighbourhood, Derek encourages you to have a conversation with them. Staring at them or calling the police doesn’t do anything except scare them off and make them uncomfortable.

Should you wish to approach them, remember they have autonomy and try not to be too eager to help. Don’t take pictures or videos of them without their permission.

By posting their photos onto the internet, you’re revealing their whereabouts to the public and compromising their safety. Ultimately, respect their space and genuinely offer your friendship.

This article was published on Sep 1, 2021

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