Sunday, January 31, 2010

Strict housing policies, illness and divorce leave some stuck

For 14 weeks between February and June last year, divorcee Zailan Abu Satamin, 40, and his third wife Faridah Atan, 26, drifted from beach to beach with an infant and two toddlers in tow. They say they were too poor to afford even a tent.

Instead, they lived in the rain shelters that dot Singapore’s parks.

After his last divorce, Mr Zailan sold the three-room Boon Lay flat he owned with his second wife in January 2007. He had remarried by then. Early last year, he lost the room he rented from a friend when he could not pay the rent.

He turned to the South West Community Development Council for help and it referred him to the New Hope Shelter where he now stays with his family.

Interviews with homeless folk, social workers and government officials indicate that divorce, dysfunction and disease, coupled with public housing policies that strictly regulate the amount of government help a family can get, may be making some people here homeless.

The number of homeless picked up by government welfare officers has doubled over the past two years – from 123 in 2007 to 253 last year, said the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). About 60 families also give up their flats every month, unable to service the loans, though most end up staying with friends or relatives.

So who are these people and what makes them homeless in a nation that prides itself on having one of the highest home-ownership rates in the world?

Problems often start with divorce, and former spouses selling jointly-owned flats. HDB rules state a person cannot rent a flat within 30 months of selling one.

Mr Zailan sold off flats twice after his two divorces. After the second sale, he and Madam Faridah rented rooms from friends. The children came soon afterwards, straining his $950 monthly income.

‘There were times when we were unable to pay and landed up on the streets,’ he said. On such occasions, his family was of no use, he claimed. His parents are dead and his stepmother already has 17 relatives living in her three-room flat. Madam Faridah’s mother is dead and her father lives in Batam. She said she is not in touch with most of her 10 siblings.

Not planning for crises like job loss or illness also make some homeless.

Take, for instance, an unemployed 53-year-old who was wandering around one of Singapore’s beaches last weekend.

The former aerospace technician, who wanted to be known only as Mr Seah, said he has been homeless for a year since he was evicted from his rental room. Estranged from his former wife and three grown up sons, he showed The Sunday Times a doctor’s note stating that he suffered from depression and anxiety attacks.

His illness, he said, cost him two jobs. But because he has bought and sold HDB flats three times, he is not eligible to apply for a rental flat. He claimed the last sale in 2008 – after his divorce – netted $100,000 into his Central Provident Fund account. But as he had no cash, he could not rent from the open market. So a blue tent on a beach is his home for now.

Many of the homeless take refuge in tents at parks and beaches as they deem void decks too visible and unsafe. In April last year, the National Parks Board (NParks) introduced permits allowing applicants to camp on the beach for up to eight days every month. It issued 21,000 such permits last year.

NParks estimates 10,000 people camped in parks in 2005-2006. Indeed, some homeless folk are using the permits to take shelter at the beach. When The Sunday Times ran into Ms Alvar Magdelene, 38, and her husband, Mr Velayutham Agamuthu, 44, the couple were camping at a beach with a valid permit – and their dog, Angel.

Ms Alvar, a bankrupt divorcee who remarried three months ago, had to give up the one-room rental flat she shared with an acquaintance earlier this month.

Mr Velayutham also has no place to stay and no job. When their permit expired last week, they applied again under Ms Alvar’s name, only to find out they had been ‘blacklisted’ for six months.

That is because permits are meant for those who camp for ‘recreational purposes’, said NParks director for parks Kong Yit San. Homeless people, he said, are referred to MCYS officers.

Deputy director of MCYS’ residential and after-care services branch Ngo Lee Yian said the ministry has in place a mechanism to help such people.

First, officers work to establish the identities of the homeless and the reasons for their plight, she said. A stay in a welfare home or transitional shelter may be necessary for those with no ‘immediate accommodation options’. Families and individuals are also referred to community agencies for help with jobs, financial aid or counselling.

Ms Ngo said MCYS will set up more shelters for families in crisis over the next few months. ‘The important thing is for people to seek help early – and not wait till you are homeless.’

But this takes time. Mr Zailan, who now has a steady job, has applied for a rental flat – the debarment period is finally over. But it could be at least another six months before he gets one.

His tenure at the shelter, however, expires next month. ‘I can only pray that we don’t have to go back to the beach again.’

But Pastor Andrew Khoo, who runs the shelter Mr Zailan is in, is sanguine this will not happen. ‘Homelessness is never permanent in Singapore, given that there is so much help in the community.’

Source: Sunday Times, 31 Jan 2010

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