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Six things you did not know about the homeless in Singapore

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Yes, there are homeless people in Singapore.

The sun has set and the offices are empty, but not everybody has gone home. In prosperous Singapore, there are people who sleep on the streets each night.

A group of youth from a local church have been befriending the homeless in North-East and Central Singapore for the past 1½ years. They visit over 40 homeless people once a week, each time bringing food and water while checking on their health and well-being. I joined them on six visits and met over 25 homeless people over three months.

Here are six things about the homeless in Singapore that I learnt.

1. Not all are actually homeless

Many of the people living on the streets have home addresses on their NRICs. Some are co-owners of a flat, but do not return home because of social reasons.

Some are estranged from their families or were kicked out by their relatives. Others left home voluntarily.

homeless sleeping at the void deck
FINDING REST AT A VOID DECK BENCH.

2. Their generosity put me to shame

Ask the man living at the void deck what his most immediate need is and he usually says he wants dinner. Every cent is precious, and they often go hungry if they have not been able to scrimp and save enough money for the day.

Yet, these poor people are among the most generous people I have met. They have close to nothing, but out of their poverty they are willing to give. 

We were given chocolates by a homeless senior whom goes by the name MacPherson (because he used to live there), and when I dropped by one hazy evening to give out N95 masks, another grateful uncle walked to a nearby supermarket and treated us to a carton of Milo.

3. People steal from the homeless

Why would anyone exploit those who have so little? Yet, the vulnerable state of these vagabonds subjects them to becoming victims of pickpockets.

Many of the homeless I met have had their wallets stolen as they slept in the open.

Even the cardboard collector auntie had her cardboard stolen several times.

couple sleeping overnight in public
A COUPLE STAYING OVERNIGHT AT A PUBLIC BENCH.

4. They love to have conversations

They are lonely. Being estranged from their loved ones can make them bitter and jaded, but it also means they crave meaningful interaction. Most are friendly to people who show interest in them.

"It's a different kind of warmth," said Stacy Ng, 19, who is waiting to enter university. Stacy, who has been visiting the destitute for eight months, added: "They're so genuine; Very easy going, very cool."

5. You may not be helping by giving them money

The group I joined regularly provide bread and water for the homeless, as well as medicated oil or plasters. The homeless do not like blankets because they have to carry their life's possessions around in the day, and prefer to travel light.

The intent of the group is to build relationships rather than dependence, so they do not give out money except in special circumstances (like when wallets get stolen).

Marcus Ang, 33, who has been visiting the homeless regularly for the past year, said: "It's one thing to give them a hand-out and another thing to help them pick themselves up. The two are very similar, but at the same time, very different."

Makeshift cardboard bed for the homeless
A MAKESHIFT BED FOR THE NIGHT.

6. They hide in plain sight

Many of these lonely vagabonds sleep right under our noses, sometimes below our flats. 

They arrive with their cardboard boxes late at night, and are ignored by most of us walking by with our eyes glued to our smartphones.

They often feel embarrassed and do not approach people for fear of being seen as a nuisance. 

Uncle Marcus, 69, has been living on the streets for the past three years. He told me: "We want you to acknowledge us as human."


This is part one of a three-part series on the homeless in Singapore. In this series:

Not your average homeless guy

25 years a cardboard collector