The often overlooked issue of the homeless caught a lot of public attention recently and some good news has come out of it with the Government announcing that facilities will be provided for them.
JUST over a week ago, William Cheah was so annoyed by Federal Territorites Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor wanting to ban soup kitchens within a 2km radius of Lot 10 in Bukit Binang, he posted on his Facebook account that come Monday (July 7) he would be standing outside one of the soup kitchens there with a foldable table stacked with 100 packets of nasi lemak and a sign saying “Free Food for The Homeless Please Take One”.
“And I want to see the FT Minister come and take those away from me. I want to see you come down there and give me a fine. Or whatever.
“I can stand when people make mistakes. But I can’t stand stupidity that intentionally harms people. Gosh, I am so pissed,” he wrote.
His Facebook status was shared 118 times with about 700 likes. A number of his Facebook friends, equally upset over the proposed ban and treatment of the homeless, wanted to join him. And they did.
Of the 40 or so people who showed up, Cheah personally knew only five.
After introducing themselves and bonding for a bit, they got down to distributing food and drinks to the homeless in the Jalan Imbi area before moving on to Kotaraya-Cahaya Suria to give out the rest.
Among those who turned up was Bukit Bintang Umno Youth exco member Mohd Fazrul Haron who was meeting Cheah for the first time.
Fazrul says he had to stand up against the proposed ban because he personally did not feel it was right.
“If people can’t afford, are hungry and don’t get food, they might start stealing so that they can eat,” he says.
He says it is absurd to lump the homeless as one because, while some are there by choice, others are forced by circumstances. Some are really poor, some disabled and can’t work, some are neglected and thrown out by their families and some have no identification card (IC).
“How are they supposed to get jobs if they have no ICs?” he asks.
He believes that the soup kitchens and feeding the homeless are more than just about giving out food.
“When we give food, we also give them semangat (lift their spirits). We sit and talk with them, share cigarettes and give them kasih sayang (care and affection),” he says.
Cheah himself knows how it is to hit rock bottom. Some 15 years ago, he was homeless. He slept in his car, brushed his teeth and showered in the office and had to use the coins in his piggy bank for food.
In those dark days, he says, family, friends and strangers helped him until he was able to crawl out of the hole he was in. Today, he is the owner of a security and human resources outsourcing company.
Tengku Adnan also came under fire for saying that people found giving money to beggars would have to pay a fine of RM150, and Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim incurred the wrath of the public when she said NGOs should stop “spoiling” the homeless with free food and shelter and that tourists were taking advantage of the soup kitchen.
All this had the social media fired up.
Shocked and appalled, people on both sides of the political divide hit out at what they saw as a lack of compassion.
NGOs running the soup kitchens and working with the homeless lashed out at the two ministers, saying there was a lack of understanding and empathy towards the homeless and the reality on the ground.
This went on for days and it finally took Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak going down to the ground himself late Wednesday night to somewhat cool things down.
Accompanied by both Tengku Adnan and Rohani, and the KL Mayor as well, Najib made an unannounced visit and spent about an hour talking to some of homeless people around the Cahaya Suria-Kotaraya area to assess the situation and needs.
He met members of Pertiwi, the NGO that actively runs a mobile soup kitchen for the homeless in the area, and which was on the ground at work that night. Pertiwi has been very vocal against the proposed ban and action against the homeless.
In the end, Najib announced that shelters with bathrooms and lockers would be set up in the area so that the homeless would have a place to leave their things, shower and shelter for the night.
He also gave credit to the soup kitchens and volunteers, saying he appreciated the work they were doing.
Pertiwi founder Munirah Abdul Hamid was among those who has been giving Tengku Adnan and Rohani a public roasting in the media for their comments on the homeless and soup kitchens. She had been challenging the two to come and see the situation themselves.
On Wednesday night, Munirah was there when the PM and the two ministers made the unannounced and unexpected visit.
She greeted them warmly before taking them around the area to see the homeless.
Munirah sees the visit as a blessing in disguise, and says it shows the Prime Minister listens.
“Let’s be optimistic and take the positive side. I am hoping this produces good results and brings real solutions.”
Munirah points out that the homeless should be given what they need and require “because only then will this be a success.”
She also hopes NGOs working with the homeless will be able to sit down with the government agencies to discuss the appropriate, practical and best approach to address the issue.
“Please don’t detain them and lock them up. That is discrimination which shouldn’t happen in this day and age,” she had pleaded to Rohani.
Shelters, she says, should have an open concept where the homeless are free and do not feel trapped and locked up.
She also feels there should be shelters in different areas because the homeless from one area will not go to the shelter in another area.
Empower, another NGO which works with the homeless, is very familiar with the detention of the homeless.
Programme officer Wong Kar Fai says that whenever the Welfare Department conducts raids, it will have officers from DBKL, the Immigration Department and Anti-Dadah Agency along. The homeless are rounded up and taken to the Titiwangsa DBKL enforcement department. If the persons have ICs, it will be recorded and he or she will be released.
“We think it is harassment because after their release, they have to walk back from Titiwangsa which takes more than an hour.”
Stressing that being homeless is not a crime, he asks: “Why do that to the same people every week? If you raid the same spot every week, you will get the same people!”
Empower president Janarthani Arumugam says nobody wants to live on the streets. Circumstances force them to do so.
“A lot of people are homeless because they have no job or other circumstances like they are in debt, they are escaping violence or maybe migrating to the city for work.”
She points out that being homeless, these people move around and have no safe place to keep their things. So if they lose their identity card, they cannot afford to pay RM300 for a replacement.
Without an IC and a permanent address, they cannot get access to welfare, government aid (including BR1M) or medical care which, she says, leaves them even more vulnerable.
And they are also exploited for cheap labour and higher profits, she adds.
“Nobody can survive on RM10 for food a day in KL but some people are being paid that.”
Some workers go for months without being paid, so it is understandable when they try to leave the “job”, she says.
She realises that the soup kitchens are only a temporary fix but the fact that they are functioning shows a failure of government policy in finding a solution to the homeless issue.
Janarthani says policy makers need to be inclusive and look into people who are falling into the vulnerable category and who cannot secure jobs.
Jamalee Bashah worries about the homeless children wandering the streets and wonders if, without getting an education, they would end up becoming the next generation of homeless people.
“Maybe there can be a place where the parent can leave the child, and then come and see the child and bring him or her out from time to time.”
Jamalee, who is president of an organisation called The Patriots, also wonders about the role of the Zakat Department which, he says, still has a lot of funds and reserves from its collection of tithes.
He says the department makes it so easy for Muslims to pay zakat (tithes) on their income but why do they make it so difficult and have such tight procedures when the poor and homeless need some money?
“I think people from the Zakat Department should go down to the ground, to the homeless, and disburse the funds rather than wait for these people to come to their office,” he says.
Pertiwi’s Munirah drives home a pertinent point.
“Politicians and NGOs must remember that it is not about us. It is about finding solutions that will benefit and help the homeless.
“It is sad that while we live in air-conditioned rooms with wonderful beds and food coming out of our ears, we can’t help those who have so little in life.”