SEVERAL Penang landmarks including the iconic Komtar building have become a hangout for homeless folk.
They would sleep along the city’s sidewalks, at bus stops and at tourist spots in the George Town Unesco World Heritage Site enclave.
A check by StarMetro found several homeless individuals congregating mainly around the Komtar area, at the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and around Penang Road.
With the homeless community having to put up with uncomfortable living conditions, a transit centre in Jalan CY Choy, George Town, may be just what they need to help them get back on their feet.
The project – a collaboration between the Penang government, Penang Island City Council and the private sector – aims to provide a shelter for the homeless.
According to Penang welfare committee chairman Phee Boon Poh, the RM4.9mil transit centre for the homeless was expected to be operational in September or October this year.
He said there was a delay in the centre’s opening because of the movement control order (MCO), which was imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“The project was behind schedule because of the delay in construction works during Phase One of the National Recovery Plan that was imposed in June last year.
“The transit centre, which is now 99% completed, will be able to house 88 occupants.
“It will also be able to accommodate up to 150 beds.
“We are now looking into fittings, such as furnishings and the layout design.
“The building is scheduled to be completed by Sept 1,” he said.
Phee said the centre would have basic amenities for people with disabilities and the lodging facilities would be separated by gender.
“It is a temporary home for them for a short period of time while they get back on their feet.
“We will work with other agencies and departments to help them rebuild their lives.
“When the centre is officially open, a task force will be set up to ensure that its operation is carried out smoothly,” he added.
Asked about other facilities at the centre, Phee said there would be a recreational area for residents to relax and unwind.
“Besides providing food, the centre will have an area where they can sit and dine.
“Seeing them sit by the roadside to eat their food is heartbreaking.
“They deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.
“Through this transit centre, the homeless can get off the streets, find a bed and get some fresh food at the shelter before figuring out their next step,” he said.
In February, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said a non-governmental organisation (NGO) would be roped in to manage the centre.
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He had said the transit centre would cater to the homeless around Komtar and nearby areas, adding that the state wished to ensure they could live comfortably in a safe environment.
It was also reported that there were plans to organise a workshop at the transit centre for residents to learn life skills.
The centre is set to have an administrative office, open-air laundry yard and a collection centre for Mutiara Food Bank to help feed the poor.
Phee said there had been an influx of vagrants in Penang, estimating that there were between 200 and 300 individuals living on the street.
On the increase of vagrants in the state, he said the homeless population increased during festive seasons.
“We also expect the number to increase as jobseekers from other states keep pouring in as well,” he said.
Phee said most of the vagrants, who included the physically challenged, became homeless because of various reasons.
“Some have family issues or lost their families while others are suffering from a lack of income or loss of work, causing them to be unable to pay rent.
“It is challenging to find a solution for each situation but we have agencies that can help them,” he added.
Penang had rescued and sheltered dozens of homeless people during the MCO.
They were temporarily housed in a function hall at Caring Society Complex in George Town.
When the MCO was imposed on March 18, 2020, the homeless were left in the lurch and ended up hiding from the authorities.
Hunger eventually drove many of them out onto the streets again, waiting for Good Samaritans to provide free meals.
Penang Welfare Department had teamed up with Penang Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Society Malaysia and the Civil Defence Force to set up the shelter and over 70 people were rescued from the streets.
Phee said the state government had been trying for a long time to get vagrants off the streets.
Some were afraid to be placed in welfare homes because they thought their lives would be restricted, he noted.
On talk about food distribution being banned around the Komtar bus station where many vagrants loiter and stay, he said the state was implementing a system where designated centres would distribute meals to registered recipients.
“There is a record of 72 vagrants in the Komtar area alone.
“Right now, there are too many NGOs giving out food to the same people.
“What happens then is that the vagrants pick the food they want and toss the other food packets away, which leads to not just a mess but also wastage of food,” said Phee.