GEORGE TOWN: Their sunset years are spent rummaging through rubbish bins, searching for aluminium cans and plastic bottles with their bare hands.
A check by The Star showed several senior citizens going through garbage bins at the Komtar bus terminal daily.
They do not realise how much bacterial risk they expose themselves to, said Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) officer Uma Ramaswamy.
It was a sad scenario, she said.
“The government must identify them and give aid,” she urged.
But not all of these folks have a sad story to tell.
In fact, state Welfare and Caring Society Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh knows who they are.
“There are about 70 of them and we have their details.
“We went at night sometime ago with gift hampers and told them we were doing surveys.
“They have amazing stories.
“Few are truly homeless. Most of them have children with homes.
“Some of them visit their children’s home during the day and return to the streets in the evening,” Phee said.
He said that in the past, during integrated operations with the police, welfare workers rounded up vagrants and those with children were persuaded to contact them.
“We counselled their children and they went home together.
“But a few days later, the old folks were back on the streets. They get bored in their children’s apartments.
“Out on the streets, they have their friends. They sell recyclable goods and earn enough to buy food,” he said.
Phee said many of them revealed that they grew up in the heritage enclave, usually in homes they had rented for decades.
After their children moved out and landlords took back the property, they did not want to leave their familiar surroundings.
As for the truly destitute, Phee said welfare workers would constantly try to persuade them to be placed in old folks homes.
However, they refused.
“They are terrified of old folks homes, no matter how we describe the happy living conditions there,” he added.
A senior citizen, who declined to be named, said he could earn between RM200 and RM300 a month from selling what he picked up from the bins.
“It is better than doing nothing,” he said.
When met, he had collected many egg cartons, plastic bags and cardboard boxes on his trolley.
The man said he did not have a family.
“I live near the jetty,” he added.
He would also rely on government incentives such as the senior citizenship appreciation programme by the state government.
Penang gives out RM100 annually to each senior citizen here, and the Welfare Department issues monthly allowances of RM300 to the needy ones registered with them.
Penang Island City Council’s (MBPP) Urban Services director Mubarak Junus said it was illegal for people to take items from rubbish bins under the Cleanliness and Public Safety By-laws 1980.
“The council issues licences for individuals to collect recyclable items but not from public rubbish bins as the items are considered contaminated,” he added.
Rose Charities Malaysia president Datuk Lawrence Cheah, who runs programmes for senior citizens, expressed concern over the needy folk who go through garbage bins.
“They may have no savings and are forced to do such work for income,” he said.
He urged the government to have retraining programmes for those who are still healthy to work.
As a “last ditch effort” to give them a better life, Phee said the state was setting up a shelter for the homeless in a pre-war house owned by MBPP.
“It is in Jalan C.Y. Choy, just 50m walk from Komtar.
“There will be beds, hot meals, a clinic, a skills learning centre and many more facilities.
“If they don’t want to leave George Town, we’ll just have to build a proper shelter for them there,” he said, adding that the tender for the project would be called in late June.