Homeless in Singapore

Learnings from the Innkeeper’s Project

Often the backdrop for Hollywood movies, and famously the location for 'Crazy Rich Asians' - Singapore has a global reputation of being a wealthy nation. Many are surprised that homelessness is even an issue in Singapore; is it an isolated problem, or a symptom of a bigger issue? We explore.

The Situation

As recently as 2019, Associate Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy published his report, titled Homeless in Singapore: Results from a Nationwide Street Count. 

In the absence of any facts or figures within the public discourse about homelessness in Singapore, Prof Ng carried out what was “the first study to determine the scale of homelessness in Singapore.”

Through careful design and organisation, the 2019 study found that there were between 921 and 1,050 street homeless people in Singapore at the time.

Some of his findings about the homeless:

A/P Ng Kok Hoe's study was conducted using the method of a nationwide cumulative count, and a single night count of selected zones.

Most were men, and Singaporean Citizens; single, separated, divorced or widowed; and had low education.

Economic, family, housing-related, and health problems were reported as the main reasons for homelessness.

Poor health and nutrition were prevalent; 1 in 4 interviewees had eaten just a meal that day or none at all.

Homelessness posed hardships and was often chronic, lasting 6 years or more for 1 in 3 persons.

Irregular work and low pay were common.

Homeless persons’ appearance, possessions, and environment do not fit stereotypes.

Just a year after Prof Ng’s study, the COVID-19 pandemic struck – decimating the median incomes of the lowest earners in society by 69% (See reporting from ST, 2020). Homelessness worsened. Despite an increased number of temporary shelters, shelters were full beyond capacity, with wait lists as long as 100 people (See ST, 2020).

The problem of homelessness has been forced to the surface of Singapore’s social landscape, mainly because of the measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, e.g. the circuit breaker. Rough sleepers are increasingly struggling to find a place to sleep, and are at higher risk of contracting the virus.

A homeless man rests in the CBD (Photo from TODAY / Nuria Ling)

The Innkeeper's Project

MWS had the opportunity to participate in the Innkeeper’s Project, in collaboration with New Hope Community Services (NHCS), Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA), Montfort Care and the Singapore Kindness Movement. Our main role was to provide case management, as part of an effort to provide 24/7 care for the homeless.

A proposal was written to the Community Foundation of Singapore to utilise the Sayang Sayang Fund for the resources needed by clients. These cover 4 main aspects: a Digital Connectivity Fund to help alleviate isolation, a Special Support Fund to assist in casework, a Home Transition Fund to help clients settle into long-term housing options, and a Research Fund to further understand the nature of homelessness in Singapore.

While MWS has traditionally not specialised in tackling homelessness as an agency, we have learned much from the experience and found that the realities of homelessness resonated deeply with our vision to enable the disadvantaged and distressed to have life to the full.

Homelessness is Multi-dimensional and Non-linear

We found that homelessness, as is the case with most of the work that we do, is multi-dimensional and non-linear. Like poverty, it is not as simple as it looks.

The research, conducted by MWS among the homeless it provided temporary shelter at Buangkok Crescent Shelter (n=77), sheds some light on the realities of homelessness:

Contributing factors to homelessness, per research conducted by MWS.

As seen in the above diagram, the factors contributing to homelessness are varied and many – the thinking that homelessness is rooted in a lack of financial means only tells a small part of the story. Very often, multiple factors ranging from the individual (e.g. financial), interpersonal (e.g. poor relations) and systemic (e.g. COVID-19 border control measures) are deeply intertwined.

For individual factors, a major finding from the research conducted by MWS  was that 73% of all interviewees were faced with physical ailments, 29% said that everyday functions were affected by mental health issues, and 68% had 1 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Of course, these individual factors bleed into the interpersonal, as mental health issues and ACEs are mostly the result of interpersonal factors such as abusive relationships. Systemic factors also weigh heavily on many of the homeless.

In light of the multi-dimensional nature of homelessness, the team also saw benefits in adopting a trauma-informed approach to casework. Social workers who were clear and transparent in their interactions were much preferred by clients during casework and counseling. 

Indeed, this could be as simple as providing clients with clear timelines, and being transparent when communicating the eligibility criteria and procedures for applications to government schemes.

The MWS research team makes the following recommendations, centered around 3 main areas of building a community support network, reviewing existing policy measures, and the adoption of a trauma-informed lens:

Building a community support network

Reviewing existing policy measures

Adopting trauma-informed lens

Homeless but Not Helpless or Worthless

However, as much as the agencies and social workers are working hard to assist the homeless, it is important to recognise that the homeless are not typecast as helpless or worthless, as some may make them out to be.

Social worker Shaw Wen Xuan of MWS Covenant Family Service Centre sums it up, “[Despite the challenges faced by the clients], we cannot discount the intrinsic strengths and assets clients have been utilising to help them to cope with rough sleeping for extended periods of time. Some clients were able to activate their own resources, including finding their own employment and temporary shelters, establishing their own unique positions within the community.”

Understanding Homelessness as Poverty

Volunteers drop off a care pack for a homeless man (Photo from ST / Ariffin Jamar)

With homelessness at a high due to the worsening economic and geopolitical conditions, how should we understand and approach the topic? It makes sense to approach the understanding of homelessness from the contemporary perspectives of poverty, of which homelessness is a subset of.

While the broad definitions of poverty are mostly economical – as in the case of global poverty lines e.g. the World Bank’s $1.25 a day – they have evolved in contemporary theory. The theory of economic poverty was widely criticised for ignoring other aspects of life, such as social, psychological and political life. The table from Lemanski (2016) below shows the evolution of poverty theory in the past 50 years:

Poverty theory over the past 50 years. 3 main approaches make up the core of poverty theory today.

Having briefly touched on the multi-dimensionality of homelessness through our experience in helping to run the Innkeeper’s Project, we believe as an organisation that it is the same for homelessness as it is for poverty. While MWS does not usually work directly with the homeless, this experience has highlighted the importance of a wider understanding of poverty in its many forms. Collaboration with other agencies and the community is also key in our journey to alleviate poverty in all its forms in Singapore. While donations are a part of the solution, it is only the beginning of further work that must be done.

As a society, we need to go beyond the physical and material in our respective approaches to helping those who are in poverty. And in this case, to go even beyond the social, political and institutional. We need to maintain our perspective that no single experience of homelessness and poverty can be simplified into a single dimension; each experience and each life bears with it a different road, and a different challenge. Each experience deserves our love and respect.

While these experiences share many commonalities, it is our duty to understand it from each person’s life and perspectives, so that we may better assist them in their respective journeys, and hopefully empower them to have life to the full.

What can I do to help?

1. Understand

Take your time to question your beliefs, and find out more about poverty in its many forms. Understand it well enough to explain it to friends/family.

2. Care

Care in your own way! As a first step, you can donate and/or volunteer. You’ll be surprised at how little it takes to help change a life.

3. Share

Sharing is caring! Get others to understand and care about poverty in its many forms. How about sharing this article as a conversation starter?