The view that homeless people are criminals or unfit for work needs to be corrected.
David is in his 60s and has been living on the streets of Kuala Lumpur for over 10 years.
Smartly dressed in a yellow T-shirt and a pair of beige slacks, his silver hair neatly combed back and face scrubbed clean, David (he doesn’t remember his last name) does not fit the common but flawed stereotype of a homeless person.
He used to manage and run a friend’s business but when he suffered a stroke in 1998, David was laid off as he was unable to work for months. Left with no income but with bills to pay, David started gambling as a short-term means of getting some cash.
It didn’t pay off and he eventually had to sell off his house to pay off his debts which, he says, amounted to almost RM100,000. David then moved in with his sister in Seremban but the arrangement didn’t work.
“We were never close. I was adopted by a couple who already had three much older children. My (adoptive) parents were good but I was never close to my step-siblings. They never really spent much time with me and by the time I was six, they had left to work and I hardly saw them,” he explains.
Feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable at his sister’s home, David decided to live and move back to KL. He lived on the streets, thinking that he’d be able to procure some work and get himself a room but his stroke had affected his speech, and movement and he couldn’t get employment. David now collects cans and bottles for recycling and does odd jobs for cash, but the money isn’t enough for a room.
“I am comfortable (on the streets) now. I’m used to it,” he says with resignation when interviewed while collecting cans along Jalan Bulan, off Jalan Imbi.
The stories of the many homeless people in Malaysia are all different, but the problems they face go beyond the need for shelter, safety and food.
Homeless people face numerous social disadvantages that exclude them from fitting in – they have reduced access to public and private services such as healthcare, education, employment and even banking services. How do you apply for a job or open a bank account without an address?
There are numerous non-governmental organisations and some private individuals that provide food and care to the homeless.
But what happens if they no longer have access to such help? Where do they go for medical or legal services? For counselling or for shelter?
The Social Welfare Department and National Welfare Foundation have several programmes that address the problem. More often than not, however, people who are homeless stay away from government programmes as they fear being “sent away” to state-run facilities and shelters where they will be stripped of their freedom.
The Welfare Department conducts exercises dubbed Operasi Gelandangan (which it refers to as “rescues”) to help get homeless people off the streets. Welfare officers can, under the Destitute Persons Act 1977, round up a person who has “no visible means of subsistence or place or residence or is unable to give a satisfactory account of himself” and place him in government welfare institutions that are established for “the care and rehabilitation of destitute persons”.
For the homeless, these exercises are not rescues but raids. They fear being detained against their will, even if they are eventually placed in welfare homes.
“We run away from the officers when they have their ‘raids’. We tell each other when they are coming and we hide,” shares David.
The Destitute Persons Act 1977, which aims to “control vagrancy”, clearly needs to be reviewed to consider people who are homeless.
Most people who are homeless are not inadequate or criminal but are just people without homes owing to unfortunate social, personal or economic circumstances. They need a policy and laws that protect them and safeguard their rights and interests.
Help is at hand
Several organisations offer assistance for the displaced and homeless. If you’re in need of help, call:
> Kechara Soup Kitchen
Tel: 03-2141 6046
> Pertiwi Soup Kitchen
Tel: 012-236 3639
> Social Welfare Department
Tel: 03-8000 8000