I decided to take a greater interest in the issue of homelessness when a researcher from Food Not Bombs KL approached me to talk about the Destitute Persons Act 1977.
I had never heard of this act prior to this. What she told me shocked me.
Basically, under this act, the authorities which includes social welfare officers had the power to order that a homeless person be admitted to a social welfare home against his or her will.
This act also allows a magistrate, acting on the recommendation of a social welfare officer, to have this homeless person stay in this social welfare home for up to six years. Furthermore, a homeless person can be held in this home until he has proof of getting a job or if someone volunteers to take care of him.
There was a possibility, according to the researcher, that this bill may be amended at the end of the year to give the authorities even more power to detain the homeless and the poor.
I figured that if I wanted to debate this bill in parliament with any credibility, I would have to go down to the ground to see the problem of homeless with my own eyes.
I reached out to The Nasi Lemak Project, a group of university students that had obtained some funding to feed the poor and homeless in the heart of KL.
I wanted to follow them on their distribution route and they agreed to let me tag along, even though they were not quite sure of my motivations. (He’s following us around because it will help him debate an Act in parliament?)
It was a useful learning experience walking through the back streets of Chow Kit, Jalan Petaling and Kota Raya.
I found out that there is no uniform reason why people choose to be homeless.
Some are former drug addicts, some have lost their IC and cannot find a job, some are the old and the infirm, some are illiterate, some have been abandoned by their families, some are gambling addicts, some have mental health issues and most have more than one of the previous problems mentioned.
In another visit to Cahaya Suria, near Menara Maybank, I bumped into Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK), an NGO which has had a long track record in feeding the poor and the needy.
I found that they also registered the homeless into their own database with the intention of finding ways to get them off the streets.
It could be as simple as buying a bus ticket back to their hometown if they cannot afford it or helping some of the more able-bodied individuals find a job.
KSK also worked with other volunteer groups including volunteer fire squads who provides basic medical care such as the cleaning of wounds.
Other groups which I know of which does outreach to the homeless include Pertiwi Soup Kitchen, Reach Out, Need to Feed the Needy (NFN) and Global Street Mission.
In addition, I also tried to find out more about Anjung Singgah, the homeless shelter located in Jalan Hang Lekiu that is run by the National Welfare Foundation.
It has a budget of RM6mil a year and it has a policy not to admit children of the homeless. And that the National Welfare Foundation had a budget of RM218mil in 2011 but does not have an operational website.
All this took place before Tengku Adnan’s proposal to ban the soup kitchens from operating within a 2km radius of Lot 10 and the ensuing furore which it created.
In a way, I am glad that he made this proposal since it increased the level of interest of the general public as well as the media on the issue of homelessness and the activities of the various soup kitchens.
More MPs are now aware of this issue and want to know more about the Destitute Persons Act.
Through many conversations with this researcher coupled with my visits and research, I realize that homelessness is a complex issue which requires multiple approaches.
To resort to quick fixes such as rounding up all the homeless under Ops Qaseh or banning soup kitchens from operating in downtown KL will simply not work.
To end, it is worthwhile to quote the words of the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a policy paper issued by the Ministerial Working Group to tackle the problem of ‘sleeping rough’ or homelessness:
“In these pages is the recognition that tackling rough sleeping is not just about providing homes. It is about dealing with the wider causes of homelessness, from family breakdown and mental illness to drug addiction and alcoholism.
This is a complex, multi-faceted problem, which is why it is so important that Ministers from across government have come together in this Working Group. We are bringing together all the relevant Whitehall departments to try and crack this problem collectively.
But ultimately, this report is not about collaboration within government, it’s about collaboration between government and those who work and volunteer at the sharp end – in charities, shelters, community groups and local authorities.
We are freeing these people from bureaucracy and giving them support to get people off the streets. Together I am confident that we can make a real impact, with the ambition to end the uncertainty, indignity and suffering of rough sleeping.”