The pandemic has exposed us to situations that we would have never expect to have happened. More people are losing jobs, suffering from a loss of income as well as mental health issues due to the stressful environment. Because of the pandemic too, more people could have become homeless. Action plans are needed because inadequate attention has been given to this group despite their increasing presence.
Specifically for Malaysia, research states that there are three suitable definitions for homelessness: 1) displacement and marginalisation, 2) lack of access to housing which causes people to become homeless or risk becoming homeless, and 3) issues related to bad planning and designing of houses for the poor and hardcore poor.
Matters related to homeless people are under the purview of women, family and community development ministry (KPWKM), with three welfare organisations involved: Desa Bina Diri (DBD) for those aged 18 to 59, and Rumah Ehsan and Rumah Seri Kenangan for the elderly aged 60 and above, who are sick and left without heirs.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s only look at the case of Kuala Lumpur where there are plenty of homeless people living on the streets and depending on the public’s kindness to survive the day.
Based on a study conducted by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), the most recent figure of homelessness in Kuala Lumpur stood at around 1,500-2,000 as of February 2016, a substantial increase from 600 in 2014.
There are many factors which contribute to homelessness. According to a survey done by Department of Social Welfare (JKM) in 2010, the top three factors are unemployment, poor and low incomes, and old age without family members.
Another survey conducted on the homeless in 2014 showed that common reasons leading to such circumstance are unemployment, debt and chronic illnesses.
Other factors listed include domestic abuse, addiction, depression, personal trauma, discrimination and lack of affordable housing or transportation.
But sadly, the common perception of the homeless is negative – they are addicts or they are too lazy to find jobs – but they should not be generalised in such a way. Some might have no other option but to ask for support.
Past research reveals that there has not been extensive research about homelessness in Kuala Lumpur or Malaysia as a whole. Because of this, there are no policies or guidelines on homelessness, so the homeless are likely to be excluded from proper benefits or assistance.
Past research has also shown that the issue in addressing homelessness is a divided understanding of the definition of homelessness, thus making the subject matter complex and producing inaccurate statistics.
KPWKM and DBD categorise the homeless as destitute which, according to Destitute Persons Act 1977, means:
• Any person found begging in a public place in such a way as to cause or become likely to cause annoyance to persons frequenting the place or otherwise create a nuisance; or
• Any idle person found in a public place, whether or not he is begging, who has no visible means of subsistence or place of residence or is unable to give a satisfactory account of himself.
JKM defines the homeless as drifters and “troublemakers”, so this should not be categorised under the same act.
The government and participating organisations need to fix a clear definition of homeless in order to prevent inefficient policies or the understatement of the reality of homelessness.
Regular monitoring on the status of those who are homeless should be done on an annual basis to boost awareness.
A proper definition would also help provide accurate statistics on homelessness to ensure sufficient shelter and government homes for those who require such help.
In April last year, about 800 homeless people in Kuala Lumpur were placed in temporary shelters during MCO 1.0 in an effort to curb the rising Covid-19 infections. Given that we are now under MCO 2.0, the same action needs to be pursued through street counts as more people have lost their jobs and homelessness is not impossible.
Helping the homeless should also be a shared responsibility between the government, welfare implementing agencies, NGOs and the public as a whole.
Anecdotally, we can observe that an increasing number of NGOs have been on the ground trying to support the homeless (such as through soup kitchens), particularly since the the pandemic struck, providing food, free haircuts, medical aid, and legal as well as counselling services.
There is a crucial need to welcome active participation and feedback from the NGOs that are relatively more experienced with the homeless. This way, policy formulation or assistance can be suited to those who actually need help and what kind of help they require as each person has their own story to tell.
The old perceptions of the homeless being “drifters and troublemakers” or that soup kitchens are encouraging people to remain homeless and jobless should not be the mainstream.
Other key issues leading to homelessness such as low wages and unemployment and lack of low-cost housing also need to be addresse, providing at least minimum wage, steady employment and perhaps a home protection scheme which are more sustainable to put an end to or at least reduce homelessness.
Finally, a ministerial working group should be formed by involving the relevant ministries such as KPWKM, the health ministry, human resources ministry and federal territories ministry, alongside consultation from important stakeholders such as the homeless people themselves and NGOs.
In the UK, for example, there is a ministerial working group to tackle and prevent homelessness which publishes reports and policy papers on a regular basis.
Homelessness might appear to be a complicated issue but without efforts and empathy to start tackling it, more people will unfortunately suffer.
Sofea Azahar is a research analyst at independent think tank Emir Research.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.