Lacking safety in numbers

A long line of people waiting to collect food distributed by a soup kitchen in Chow Kit. — Photos: AZHAR MAHFOF and SHARI CHE MAT/The Star

SITI (not her real name), a single mother from Cheras, travels every day with her two children aged five and six to collect food and any handouts distributed by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or Good Samaritans.

She usually spends hours in areas such as Chow Kit and Medan Tuanku in Kuala Lumpur, which are focal points for these charitable activities and places frequented by the homeless.

The 28-year-old brings her children along as people are more sympathetic with them in tow. Sometimes, she gets cash and other times, clothes, shoes and other items.

She would later sell the items or pass them to neighbours or family members.

Siti has learnt to make the most of a bad situation to continue paying rent after losing her job in a shopping centre several months ago.

“I have to come out, I am not begging, just doing what I can to feed my family, ’’ Siti explained.

Plight of B40 group

And she is not the only one facing this dilemma. Volunteers say the number of people receiving meals has increased since July and they are not just the homeless and hardcore poor, but also those from the B40 group.

Sarah (not her real name), a sex worker with three children, said her livelihood was affected during the movement control order (MCO) period.

She sai the bulk of her earnings went to paying rent and buying food.

There is evidence of people living and sleeping around Chow Kit, Medan Tuanku, Jalan Petaling and Medan Pasar areas.

A man, who only wanted to be known as Manbai, said he had slept on a bench near the Medan Pasar clock tower.

Manbai was a construction worker before the lockdown, but lost his job two months ago when he fell sick.

“My landlord kicked me out and I have been sleeping here and other places, depending on the food distribution schedule.

“It was hard at first, especially when it rains, but I am getting used to it” he said.

Another person in the area, who looked like he was in his 50s, said he had to live on the streets as he could no longer afford rent.

Nowhere to go

With their loss of income and no money to pay for daily needs and rent, many from the B40 category are now on the streets. They include not only adults but families with children.

While getting handouts from soup kitchens and NGOs, they are putting themselves and others at increased risk to Covid-19.

Following public tip-offs, StarMetro visited the areas and found men, women and children there.

Families placed mats on a pedestrian walkway and sat around chatting with each other as they waited for the meals to be distributed.

No physical distancing was being observed and some were wearing masks on their necks instead of over their nose and mouths.

Some of the masks looked like they had been reused several times over and there was no hand sanitiser to be seen.

When asked, most said they reused face masks to save money as the cost of replacing it daily was too expensive.

Growing numbers

While getting handouts from soup kitchens and NGOs, they are putting themselves and others at increased risk to Covid-19.

During the MCO in April, the Welfare Department and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) along with other agencies, rescued hundreds of homeless people from the streets and many were sent to training camps to help them become independent.

The initial figure was 510 rescued that month, but homeless transit centre operators said people were coming every day to seek refuge during the first few months when the city was placed on lockdown and the figure surged to almost 800.

Many claimed they had lost their jobs and were kicked out of their homes for failing to pay rent.

In an interview with former mayor Datuk Nor Hisham Ahmad Dahlan in July, he said almost 90% of the homeless who were rescued were sent to undergo rehabilitation programmes in Kuantan, Pahang, while the Labour Department found them jobs.

DBKL had spent over RM1mil to set up temporary transit centres, provide food and carry out various programmes since then.

But despite these efforts to keep them off the streets, there are still homeless people in the city since the start of the recovery MCO and now, the B40 group has joined them.

“The numbers are increasing because the B40 group is now part of the community there, although they do not live on the streets, ” said Pertiwi Soup Kitchen founder Datuk Munirah Abdul Hamid.

“The children in the photos are not homeless, they live elsewhere and come here with their parents. These places have become their playground, ” she added.

“Many of the children are living with their parents in low-cost housing and shoplots in the area, ’’ said Program Menyantuni Gelandangan (PMG) director Alya Syahida Allias.

PMG is a pilot support programme for the homeless in the city.

“They are desperate for help and now that their only form of income is cut off, they do not seem to understand that their actions are endangering their children, ” added Alya.

“When you live in a small unit with many others, physical distancing is a luxury and they do not know the dangers of getting infected.”

Volunteers also claim the homeless who were sent for training by the government were back on the street.

“These groups, the elderly ones are stubborn. They do not like staying indoors because of house rules and they want to live on their own terms, ” said Munirah.

Exposed to danger

Dr S. Madhusudan, who has been providing medical care for the homeless in Kuala Lumpur for years, believes that if left unchecked, this situation can result in the emergence of a new cluster.

“As doctors doing volunteer work here, we have no idea who has been exposed, so all we can do is protect ourselves by wearing masks and sanitising our hands and following the standard operating procedure (SOP), ’’ he said.

“I feel there are more people who have been exposed to the virus, but are asymptomatic, ” he said, adding that they do not show any symptoms.

“People only go to the hospital when there are symptoms and have tested positive.’’

Dr Madhusudan feels that parents should not bring their children along during the food distribution sessions.

“It is best to leave the children at home. If the B40 group is smaller, it is better for the NGOs or Welfare Department to go to them instead.

“If that is not possible, then it’s better for the authorities to reopen the temporary transit centres like in April, ’’ he said, adding that by looking at the number of cases, it was better to be safe than sorry.

Alya agreed but said t it could be very expensive for the government to maintain the centres.

In July, when the MCO restrictions were eased, StarMetro reported that the homeless community that was rescued in April returned to the streets.

But DBKL said there was not much it could do as management of the homeless was under the Welfare Department and Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

That sentiment was shared by mayor Datuk Mahadi Che Ngah who reiterated that the homeless issue was not under DBKL.

StarMetro reached out to the ministry spokesman and was told to refer the matter to Federal Territories Ministry.

In July, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Harun told Parliament that the government planned to review the Destitute Persons Act 1977 to better deal with the homeless.

Rina said 1,238 homeless were rescued by the authorities during the MCO period.

Of this number, she said, KL recorded 50% followed by Johor and Sarawak.

Both Munirah and Alya feel that the Act is outdated and needs to be updated to include a broader definition of just vagrants.

“The homeless are not just vagrants, but include transgender community, drug addicts and sex workers, ’’ said Munirah.

“As such the data is inaccurate and needs to be updated, ’” added Alya.

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