Why more or less remain homeless?

Photo: digitalpimp/CC BY-ND 2.0Photo: digitalpimp/CC BY-ND 2.0

Where the displaced (homeless) see refuge

I refer to the article “Where the displaced seek refuge” (2 full pages about the homeless – Sunday Times, Feb 5).

More homeless being seen in the open, then hidden like in the past?

It states that “It used to be that vagrants would remain, unseen and unheard, at the margins of society. They bedded down in tents on the beach or slept on cardboard in the dark corners of staircase landings and void decks.

But a growing number is moving, literally from the dark to brightly lit and safer urban areas, say charity or volunteer groups that reach out to those who sleep outdoors, as more built-up spaces emerge and businesses operate round the clock.

Many are drawn, for instance, to eateries and supermarkets that are open 24/7, spending days and nights in the vicinity of the air-conditioned respite they offer.

Homeless for 7 years?

Mr Iwan, 69, who declined to give his full name, spends his nights at such a location in Toa Payoh, lying down on a row of chairs borrowed from a nearby coffee shop.

He moved there after five years of sleeping in void decks in Ang Mo Kio, and two years in a tent in Changi before that, he said.

“It’s cleaner here. The coffee shop uncle nearby is nice and doesn’t complain about us,” he said.

The term “homeless” generally refers to those who do not have permanent accommodation or are unable to use their registered address for various reasons.

“Number has not gone up in Singapore, it has not receded either”

Though their number has not gone up in Singapore, it has not receded either. From 2005 to 2015, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) gave support and shelter to an average of 300 individuals or families each year, similar to between 2013 and 2016, when 719 individuals and 467 families were given help.

It seems that the displaced will always form a part of society, and it is not hard to see why they gravitate towards places where there are more people.

Ms Fion Phua, whose group, Keeping Hope Alive, works with the elderly and homeless, said: “Some of them stay near brightly lit places to guard against theft or where there are toilets they can use.

“Those with illnesses may want to be around people so if anything happens, they are not alone.”

The new homeless?

Mr Abraham Yeo, of volunteer group Homeless Hearts of Singapore, said some may also wish to mask their homeless state.

“We are seeing more younger people, those in their 50s instead of their 60s and 70s, camping at Starbucks, McDonald’s, Internet and gaming cafes, libraries and other urban spaces, as these are places where people hang out and it is not immediately obvious that they are homeless,” he added.”

“Fewer homeless families now: MSF”?

I would also like to refer to the article “Fewer homeless families now: MSF” (Sunday Times, Feb 5).

Fewer homeless picked up?

As to “Fewer homeless families are being picked up by the authoritiesLast year, 93 families were admitted to shelters, compared with 144 in 2013.

In contrast, 71 homeless individuals moved into transitional shelters, compared with 49 in 2013.

Another 105 were sent to welfare homes last year.

Fewer homeless or harder to catch them?

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said there are fewer homeless families now, as efforts have been made in recent years to ensure those in financial and housing difficulties are referred early to family service centres (FSCs) for help” – it my not mean that there my be less homeless people. It may just mean that it may be harder for the authorities to catch them now.

Otherwise, how do you think the Sunday Times’ reporters were able to find so many homeless people to do such an extensive two full pages’ report?

This may be underscored by the remarks “Mr Lance Ambrosio, who works at Bakery and Bar St Marc at Parkland Green in East Coast Park, said: “Sometimes, we give them leftover bread.” There used to be more than 10 people who would sleep near the restaurant at night, but the number has dwindled to two or three, possibly because the authorities have been patrolling the area, he noted”.

And also the remarks “Other reasons could be to evade the authorities, who look for them in the usual places to assess their situation.

Dr Neo Yu Wei, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Social Service Research Centre, said: “This will drive the homeless to seek other new places.””

3 Govt-funded homeless shelters?

  • With regard to “There are three government- funded shelters that allow people to stay for up to six months for as low as $50 a month.Places in these shelters – which can accommodate about 150 families – are reserved for those who have exhausted all means of accommodation and need immediate housing assistance, said MSF” –
  • Why people continue to be homeless?
  • this may be one of the primary reasons why people continue to be homeless – because “(the)  three government- funded shelters (that) (only) allow people to stay for up to six months”.
  • After “up to six months” – they may become homeless again if they cannot afford “the Housing Board’s interim rental scheme (“which costs about a few hundred dollars a month for a room”).
  • And of course, if they can’t even afford a few hundred dollars – how “can (they) also try to rent on the open market”?. Moreover, there are also “those who do not qualify” or “cannot wait for a place in a shelter” (I understand that the shelters are invariably always full).
  • HDB criteria and interim rental scheme?
  • In respect of “This issue is being addressed with refinements in HDB criteria as well as the development of interim rental housing for families.
  • As to “Most who become displaced are poor and have weak social support. Three out of four were flat owners who sold their homes for reasons such as to settle debts, or after a divorce, and later could not afford to buy or rent another flat, said MSF.The remaining quarter have fallen out with those they lived with for various reasons.
  • In the past, the problem of homeless families was partly due to some overstretching themselves to own a flat and having to sell it when in financial difficulty,” said Prof Ng.
  • Associate Professor Irene Ng, from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) social work department, said households have also benefited from adjustments to housing policy.
  • More housing options now?NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser agreed that families have more housing options now.
  • Why people continue to be homeless?
  • “Perhaps family units are more likely to be given priority with rental housing,” he said” – this issue of the HDB’s policies may be another primary reason why people continue to become homeless?
  • HDB rental scheme – most preferred because cheapest?
  • The most preferred housing option for the homeless is HDB rental flats because they are the cheapest, compared to the HDB’s interim housing rental scheme. But the conditions to qualify for a HDB rental flat are onerous and very restrictive: ”
    • You must be a Singapore Citizen (SC)
    • Your must include at least another SC or a Singapore Permanent Resident (SPR) in your basic family nucleus.
    • Your family nucleus must comprise any of the following:
      • You and your spouse
      • If single, you and your parents
      • If widowed/ divorced, you and your children under your legal custody (care and control)
      • Fiancé and fiancée
      • If orphaned, you and your siblings (at least 1 parent was an SC or SPR)
    Joint Singles Scheme
    • You and your listed occupier must be SCs
    • Both of you must be single
    • Any of the following are considered as singles:
      • Unmarried and at least 35 years old
      • Divorced or legally separated from spouse, with legal documents, and at least 35 years old
      • Widowed or orphaned (at least 1 parent was an SC or SPR)


    You must be at least 21 years old at the time of application.

    Income ceiling

    Your total household gross income must not exceed $1,500 per month.

    Existing HDB tenants/ essential occupiers

    You and your listed occupiers cannot be existing tenants or essential occupiers of HDB flats.

    Property ownership

    You and your listed occupiers must not:

    • Own/ have an estate or interest in an HDB flat or a Design, Build & Sell Scheme flat
    • Have disposed of any of the above property types within 30 months prior to the date of your application


    You and any of the listed occupiers must not have:

    • Owned or sold 2 direct-purchased HDB flats in the open market
    • Owned/ have an estate or interest in/ have disposed of such property at the point of application:
      • Local or overseas private property (house, building, or land), residential or otherwise
      • Executive Condominium
      • Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) flat

    An individual who has been barred under any rule, regulation, or policy by the government or us will not be eligible to:

    • Apply for a rental flat under the Public Rental Scheme
    • Be listed as an occupier in the application

    Family support

    You and your listed occupiers will not be eligible to rent an HDB flat if any of your children are:

    • Able to house you in their own homes
    • Financially able to provide other housing options for you
    We will carry out an assessment to determine if you or any of the listed occupiers have other housing options or family support.”
  • A lot of help given?

    With regard to “Homeless individuals tend to be older, have health conditions and lack any means of supporting themselves or their families.

    They are often admitted to welfare homes, said MSF.

    To help homeless people, the Government works with social service and community agencies to address underlying issues, providing employment assistance, counselling or childcare referrals.

    MSF said it works closely with FSCs and HDB branches in each town to identify and support those at risk.

  • The root of the problem and the solution?
  • Its spokesman said: “As we strive to provide support to the needy in our community, we are also mindful that some prefer to be self-reliant and decline assistance.”” – perhaps, arguably the simplest and quickest solution may be to have more HDB rental flats and relax the eligibility criteria, and maybe also allow CPF to be used to pay for the HDB rental schemes.
  • If some of these are done – the homeless people’s biggest problem – having an affordable roof over their head, may help a great deal in dealing with their other financially related issues like “employment assistance”, “childcare referrals”, “self-reliant”, “decline assistance”, “counselling”, “health conditions”, etc.
  • Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), invited to speak more than 200 times in over 30 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Indonesia and Brunei. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.