LOOK under any bridge in Kuala Lumpur and chances are you might find a homeless person sleeping on a cardboard, clutching their belongings close to their chest.
Sometimes, you will even find mothers and babies making the dark, dangerous and smelly concrete surface beside the Klang River their home.
The thin mattress, cardboard sheets, pillows, clothes and other personal items are everything that they have.
The majority, who are Malaysians, choose to take shelter under a bridge as they believe it is safer compared to sleeping along five-foot ways and pedestrian bridges.
However, taking refuge from the storm right beside the Klang River is risky, with the chance of flooding and getting swept away by the raging water.
Occupants under the bridge have to flee at the first sign of rain, packing up everything they own and moving to higher ground.
Sometimes, their belongings which include important documents and money, drop into the river while they are sleeping.
A homeless community in itself
On the surface, the homeless may seem to be fighting their battles alone most of the time; what people do not see is the support and friendship among them.
They watch each other’s backs in times of difficulty and in sickness.
“Recently, I had difficulty finding a job and my friend, who is my regular neighbour under the bridge where we settle down at night, asked me to help him at his stall so that I could earn some money,” said a homeless man who only wanted to be known as Mas.
Mas, who used to work odd jobs as a security guard said he was thankful for friends like that.
“Even my family (siblings) don’t want to help me or let me come home,” he said.
He lives under the bridge beside the old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, along with many others.
This spot right beside the Klang River is one of the popular areas where the homeless seek refuge, due to its wide pavements and high pillars that allow them to keep their belongings safe even when it floods.
Other populated areas are at the bridge beside Central Market, under the Syed Putra roundabout, Jalan Kinabalu Roundabout and below the bridges along Jalan Istana and Brickfields.
Most bridges located along the Klang River with proper concrete pavements and spacious rest areas are where most of them take refuge.
Sometimes each area can house over 100 occupants, or even more.
During the day, quite a number of them sleep at the bridge beside Central Market as it is free from pedestrians and is breezy even during humid days.
Though these homeless clans are scattered under many different bridges in the capital city, they do have “news channels” that keep everyone informed.
For example, word is spread about where or what food is served, where to get clean water for bathing, who’s hiring and where to go for medicinal help.
They even know if someone is hurt, injured, killed or missing.
“There was an ill and disabled woman sleeping under a bridge and one day, she got scared off by photographers who took her picture without consent.
“She was afraid authorities would arrest her, so she ran away,” said a homeless man who did not want to give his name.
He and his friends set out to look for her at a few different sites, to make sure she was all right.
They were worried for her health and whether she had access to food.
Unfortunately, till today, they never found her.
“I don’t see many of the same faces every day because people come and go. Sometimes they sleep somewhere else but we all know each other,” said Noriza.
The 42-year-old who has been homeless for close to three years, looks after a stall in Central Market with her husband who came to the city from Malacca.
A few other homeless people also told the StarMetro that no one stayed put in a particular place as they just take shelter wherever is most convenient.
Wherever they go, the homeless chat like friends do, welcome other homeless individuals into their “neighbourhood” and look out for one another.
Sometimes they even visit one another at the various bridges. They also know where the regulars usually sleep at night.
When one is injured or hurt, their friends would help seek medical attention for them through the Welfare Department.
One of them even offered his extra clothes to another homeless man who lost all his belongings in the Klang River while he was asleep.
Ridiculed and turned away
The homeless community are regularly stereotyped as people who are drug addicts or suffering from mental problems.
They are often ignored, feared, ridiculed and seen as incapable of doing anything with their lives.
However, a visit to a few bridges in the city proved otherwise.
Most of these misunderstood groups are only living on the street because they cannot afford to rent a room with the measly pay they get.
“Who wants to live like this? No one. But we don’t have a choice,” said a homeless individual, who identified himself as Ridzuan.
Voice of the homeless
“It is safer living here under the bridge compared to up there (on the streets),” said a homeless man who said his name was Lan.
The 31-year-old, who was born in Cheras, has been living under the bridge beside the old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station for 10 years.
Lan has siblings in the Klang Valley but is ashamed to go home due to the ridicule and embarrassment of being homeless.
The former soldier who quit after a few years in service, said through tears that being homeless was not something he thought would ever happen to him.
“It is not easy as we cannot get jobs due to our status, and we get harassed by enforcement officers.
“They throw all our belongings... everything we own... into the river,” he said, wiping away tears.
He works odd jobs at a car wash and as a security guard.
However, he said the jobs did not pay well and his employer would withhold his pay for months.
Similarly, a 35-year-old security guard who only wants to be known as Zubin, said he was always shortchanged by his employer.
He moved here from Penang about four years ago with dreams of earning more money in the big city.
“Just because I am not educated, they try to take advantage of me,” he said.
Zubin, who is still working as a security guard here, got kicked out of his rented home in Ampang about five months ago because of unpaid rent.
He said that he was not paid for a few months and soon he could not keep up with the house rent.
“Now I am homeless and it is hard to get another room as no one wants to give me a second chance, be it a job or a home,” he added.
Zubin loiters around the city centre and often sleeps under the bridge beside Central Market.
His friend, Mohd Zainurin on the other hand, had never had the luxury of even renting a room ever since he came here from Kedah.
“I got cheated. I was approached by a man who said he had a job for me as a security guard in Kuala Lumpur and I will be rewarded well if I could bring 50 other friends to work with me,” he said.
The 40-year-old jumped at the opportunity and ended up living on the street when he only got paid RM10 a day.
“I then found out the guy was not from the security company he claimed to represent, but just a middle man who earned thousands because he referred us,” he said.
Meanwhile, 34-year-old Mohd Ali’s troubles started after losing his passport while working in Singapore two months ago.
The orphan, originally from Penang, said he came back to Kuala Lumpur on a temporary exit pass to get a replacement passport.
However, the process required him to fork out a sum of money he did not have.
“All my money is stuck in Singapore and I am trying to find a way to get it. So now I am broke and without a place to stay,” he said.
Mohd Ali, who has a STPM certificate, has not been successful in finding a full-time job and is now looking after an open-air car park and getting paid RM10 per day.
StarMetro also met a new mother, known only as Namuni, at a daycare centre in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. She has been homeless for about a year after she got kicked out of her home in Klang. She now has a two-month-old son.
“I cannot go home anymore because of the baby and so I have to live under the bridge,” she said.
The 20-year-old explained that she gave birth in Kuala Lumpur Hospital, then took her baby and ran away the very next day.
She is afraid the authorities may arrest her as she had a baby out of wedlock.
Her baby has no birth certificate and has not been vaccinated.
Cry for help
While the unique support system among the homeless enable them to survive day to day, they are pleading for assistance from the Government to help them turn their lives around.
“All we ask for is a roof over our heads, maybe a place we can stay for a week or two while we look for a job,” said a homeless man who wish to remain unidentified.
“If not for us then for the women and children who are also living like us.
“How can women and children be homeless? It is unsafe for them and it is not right,” he said.
A group of them has applied to rent flats under the People’s Housing Programme (PPR) but have not heard back from the local authorities.
They said the flats were feasible because they could scrape enough for the monthly rent of RM100, but it was difficult to get a unit as there was a long line of waiting applicants.
Moving here from Johor a few years ago, Ridzuan said most of them have been to the Welfare Department and other relevant authorities to seek help.
However, their efforts were in vain when the staff told them they could not help.
“We have been turned away a few times. Even when I showed them my injured leg and how I cannot work, they said they cannot help me,” said another homeless person, Riduan, 39.
The Sabah-born used to work in a factory but lost his job when he injured his foot and was out of commission for about four months. He now moves from bridge to bridge to find a place to sleep.
Riduan, 39, has since tried applying for other jobs but is always rejected because he is homeless and injured.
“Who is left to help us when those who can help don’t want to help us?” he said.