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Published: Sunday July 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday July 13, 2014 MYT 9:05:44 AM

Sleepless over the homeless

Woman, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, who was adamant about moving the homeless out of the streets of KL, is discovering what they want. 

WOMAN, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim and Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor had people riled up recently when they said they were trying to round up the homeless people from the streets of KL, stop soup kitchens from feeding the people on the street and fine people giving money to beggars.

While Tengku Adnan started the “ball rolling” initially by wanting to “clean up” the city, Rohani got her share of brickbats with comments such as NGOs shouldn’t pamper the homeless and that tourists were taking advantage of the soup kitchens.

On Tuesday, in a one-on-one brief interview with The Star, Rohani addressed the criticisms and was adamant about wanting to move the homeless out of the streets.

Just a day later, however, after a walkabout in Kotaraya led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak who was accompanied by Tengku Adnan and KL Mayor Datuk Seri Ahmad Phesal Talib, and talking to the homeless in the area, Rohani (and presumably Tengku Adnan) has now taken a softer approach.

Below are the Q&A with Rohani before the July 9 walkabout and after.

Before the July 9 walkabout

> Why have you not gone down to the ground yourself to assess the situation and what the homeless want?

Who says I have not? I have been down. But when I go I don’t have to announce it. If I announce it, these (homeless) people will not be on the street and that defeats my purpose. I went one day in early May and was there from 10pm to 2am. I went under the bridge but couldn’t find anybody there. Later, I found out that word had gotten out that I was going to be there, so the homeless didn’t want to be on the street that night.

I can’t just take my officers’ words at face value, which is why I go down to get a feel myself. My Welfare Department officers too are on the ground very frequently. They go with DBKL and a team and get as much facts as they can about the homeless, about who they are, where they are, what they want and why we are not able to take them off the street. We have done a study in 2010 on the homeless. The scenario today is still the same. Sometimes it is the same people we have met. These are hardcore.

> Pertiwi (soup kitchen founder Munirah Abdul Hamid) said you were “crazy” to say tourists took advantage of the soup kitchen, that you are not listening and asked you to come and see the situation on the ground yourself.

I am crazy? We have done engagements with Pertiwi. They are adamant they still want to feed people on the street. I mentioned to her why not also try to feed my clients in the welfare homes. This is what I have been trying to tell the Soup Kitchen NGOs. Besides feeding people on the streets, I tell them since they have so much resources, why not also share this with the welfare homes? When they feed on the street, it defeats our purpose of taking people off the street. When people are not hungry and have a place to sleep, they are going to be there all the time. And I won’t be able to take them off the street because they are not hungry.

> Do you think it’s their choice to be on the street without a roof over their head?

Sometimes yes. I brought people from under the bridge to an all-paid-for rented house but they only stayed for two days, then left and went back under the bridge. So it is by their own choice. This is the type of people. There is not much that I can do except offer them counselling so that they can really get off the street. When there are incidents such as a child getting murdered (by a homeless man), who do they point the fingers at? The Government! They don’t point to themselves. We have been doing our level best to take the children off the streets and send them to proper institutions. That is why my operation is called Operation Menyelamat, because we want to save them.

> How did you come to the conclusion that tourists are taking advantage of soup kitchens?

When the homeless lined up for food and tourists who are backpackers were in the vicinity, they lined up too because they thought it was an occasion. I don’t blame them because they didn’t know and got in line. I tell you that if you go to certain places, the NGOs are feeding the Bangladeshis, foreign workers and people who are working.

> But this might be because they are earning very little money and can’t survive with that amount in the city?

So what? We are encouraging them. Why not feed the ones in my welfare homes? I think they deserve more of the food.

> People say the fact that soup kitchens are functioning shows a failure of the Government to find a long-term solution in tackling urban poverty and the homeless issue.

Urban poverty programmes are being done but people expect a miracle. They expect programmes to immediately wipe out urban poverty.

People are looking for jobs and we give them jobs. Out of the 900 registered with Anjung Singgah (a temporary shelter in KL for the homeless who want to find jobs), only 200 stayed with their jobs. Some even stole from their employers. And now potential employers are scared to take these people in. The government has done everything that the NGOs are doing except for the feeding. It doesn’t look good on the government to feed on the streets. Tell me which government in the world feeds (the homeless) on the streets? It is only NGOs who do this. And I do know that these NGOs do get funding from overseas so they have to justify (what they are doing).

> But it looks like the government is more concerned about the image of the city and wants to chase the homeless out rather than provide care and welfare for them?

No. We give welfare. Tengku Adnan had affirmative action in place. He was coming up with welfare homes where there would be one floor for men and one for women and the bottom floor would be where you would feed them. His statement was not read in totality and was spun out of proportion. I have nine target groups (under my watch). The homeless are one of the groups. I don’t leave them out but why focus on just the homeless? We already have action for them. But if they don’t come and meet us when we are up and about, then how much can I do?

> If the operations are really to “save” the homeless, then surely they would be running towards rather than away from the operations?

The perception spun is that we are about to catch them and put them in cells. That is not true. We don’t do that. Now we have the opposition parties wanting to go to Desa Bina Diri (centre for the homeless) in Sungai Buloh to see our facilities there because they think it is a cell. They are welcome to have a look.

> Is being homeless a crime?

No, but must they be homeless? Why should they be homeless in the first place? Because they are unemployed? Tell me why they are unemployed? Then come let’s tackle the problem. You talk to (homeless) people and they say they can’t get this and that. Should they be homeless or is it by choice?

> But things like housing and rental in the city are very expensive these days and force people to live on the street.

We don’t have an Aladdin’s lamp where we can just rub and rub the lamp and it all happens (like magic).

The Government is tackling it and it is in our NKRA lab. Day and night, our officers are cracking their heads to come up with ideas, like maybe having capsule beds like in Japan. But the homeless too should come forward. Have you seen the homeless who come to take food? Most are able-bodied, who are young, aged 20 to 40. As for those who are in their 50s and 60s, they shouldn’t be on the streets. They should be in our (old folks home) institutions if they are homeless and alone. That is why we keep saying we want to save them. To be in our institution is the last choice. You tell me, which is better, being in our institution or sleeping in the streets?

> But the PM has said the days of “the top-down government-knows-best” approach is over, so surely in this case it depends on what the homeless want?

All our efforts are not good in the eyes of NGOs. Do you want the homeless to be on the street? We are moving towards becoming a developed nation but we have all these homeless people. Is that what these NGOs want? So that they can feed them? My mood is spoiled now because everything we do is not good enough and not right. Don’t tell me you don’t want the Government to do anything about the homeless? Is that what I should tell the Cabinet? Whatever we do, the NGOs will not be happy!

After the July 9 walkabout

> How do you feel coming down today and assessing the situation?

As I have said, I have been here before. But with the PM coming down today, we will work something out. I sat down today with some of the homeless and listened to what they had to say. They don’t want to be far away from here nor do they want to be in our institution.

The PM spoke to some aged more than 60 and instructed me to take their particulars because maybe it is better for them to be in our welfare homes.

His concern too was for the small kids sleeping on the streets. Maybe they can be placed in (welfare) homes temporarily while their parents look for good jobs. But the thing about this too is that parents don’t want to be separated from their children and we have to respect their wishes. If they give their kids to us, it must be with consent. And since they don’t consent, let it be. We respect it. So maybe that is the answer. They just want a kind of shelter. Even if we give them a mattress also, they don’t want it because they are so used to sleeping on the street.

So it’s just a roof, a place to bathe and other basic things. Maybe we can also provide services. That’s where people can give them food and at the same time they can get a medical check up there.

> Will the Government be okay with people still sleeping on the streets?

No, we don’t want that. PM says he cannot stand it when he sees the rakyat sleeping on the street. He wants them to be sleeping in a shelter where at least it is safer because out on the streets there are all kinds of people.

So there will be a proper shelter where the homeless can sleep. They feel comfortable here (in the area) so never mind (they can stay). They can go to the shelter (nearby), leave their things there, go out and come back to sleep at night.

Clarification

It has been pointed out that our feature “Artfully making dreams come true” on MyCreative Ventures Sdn Bhd last week misleadingly suggested that it offers funding to “individuals and enterprises”. MyCreative Ventures only offer funding to private limited companies incorporated in Malaysia. At MyCreative, they offer business loans revolving around the base lending rate.

Tags / Keywords: Government, Family & Community, women, family and community development, rohani abdul karim

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