Sunday, January 31, 2010

Number of homeless people doubles

The number of homeless folk picked up by welfare officers driving around Singapore’s housing estates, beaches and streets has doubled in the past two years.

A total of 253 people were picked up by officers from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) last year, up from 123 in 2007. More than half were found sleeping in void decks of Housing Board blocks.

More than six in 10 were men aged below 60 and ‘capable of working’, said MCYS. The rest were divided equally between women and older men. Around 85 per cent were Singaporeans.

Most of the vagrants were admitted to government-run homes for destitutes where they get free food, clothes and shelter, but face curbs on their freedom.

Those picked up from void decks and beaches last year included 17 families, up from just four in 2007.

But these numbers do not paint the full picture as about 260 other people, including 43 families, are staying at two temporary shelters for the homeless, run by New Hope Community Services, a voluntary welfare organisation (VWO).

One of the shelters is for families, the other for single men, many of whom are homeless ex-offenders. Five additional flats were released to the VWO last week and it expects to take in another 40 people by the end of next month.

A third shelter, operated by Lakeside Family Service Centre, was set up just a month ago and is currently housing 12 families.

The family shelters are located in a series of three-room HDB flats. Many of the families staying at these places were referred there by welfare agencies such as community development councils (CDCs) and family service centres (FSCs).

Unlike welfare homes, the family shelters allow residents to come and go as they please and charge between $50 and $150 a month, depending on the size of the families and their ability to pay. Families must also cook their own meals, though food rations are provided.

While the rise in numbers coincided with Singapore’s deepest recession in years, MCYS said there is no direct evidence to link this with the financial crisis.

Ms Ngo Lee Yian, the ministry’s deputy director for residential and after-care services, said the biggest cause for the spike was ‘greater awareness’ on the part of Singaporeans who called the ComCare Call hotline (1800-222-0000) to tip off the ministry on homeless people in their neighbourhoods.

The spike in hotline calls led to increased patrols by officers from MCYS’ Destitute Persons Service, which, in turn, saw more people being picked up, said Ms Ngo. There were around 280 patrols last year, up from 160 in 2007.

Members of Parliament such as Charles Chong and Seah Kian Peng have seen a rise in cases of constituents seeking help over housing problems.

‘The number of HDB-related cases I see rose significantly after flat prices started to rise,’ said Mr Chong, who gets about 15 such appeals every week. ‘Most are requests for rental units, though cases involving evictions or homelessness remain few.’

Pastor Andrew Khoo, executive director of New Hope Community Services which runs the eponymous shelter, said there are three main factors causing the down-and-out to land up on his doorstep.

Some shelter residents were forced to sell their homes because they lost their jobs and could not keep up with mortgage payments. About 60 flats are voluntarily surrendered to the HDB every month, The Sunday Times understands.

Others, said Pastor Khoo, had taken loans from banks and could not service them after interest rates were raised.

Such people also typically have strained relationships with family members and are often ineligible to rent or buy HDB flats.

‘So they have no one to turn to for help,’ said Pastor Khoo.

He added that about 60 per cent of the families staying at his shelter are Malay, and 20 per cent are Indian.

The shelters can house the homeless for only three months. During that period, families work with social workers to find alternative accommodation. On release, about 40 per cent go to live with friends or relatives and about 30 per cent rent a flat from the HDB.

New Hope has a waiting list of about 30 families, most of them fear losing their homes. Currently, two to three families are packed in each three-room flat.

‘Some may have to sleep in the hall,’ said Pastor Khoo. ‘But that’s better than living out in the open.’

Source: Sunday Times, 31 Jan 2010

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