Have you ever wondered what homeless people do? When they scavenge through rubbish bins collecting things along the way, do you wonder what they collect and what they do with it? Maybe you wonder as well where they find food to eat or a place to sleep. And you might wonder as well, do they pray?
Let us follow the life of Adni, a friend of mine who at one point had to navigate the urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur while being homeless, and the lives of others whose accounts I heard from social workers and observed with my own eyes.
Adni found himself in Kuala Lumpur after travelling to the capital city from Perlis to find a job. A dropout with no qualifications, he had almost zero chance of being employed. Although he became a dishwasher at a restaurant, it was short-lived and he soon found himself on the streets with nothing but some clothes, his mother’s belongings and his documentation.
Finding food was a challenge. Sometimes he would wander into restaurants, begging for scraps and leftovers from other people. Nowadays, there are organisations which distribute food – all around Chow Kit and Masjid Jamek alone, there are groups which distribute food to the homeless. But during Adni’s time, he could only rely on individuals who would reach out from their cars to give him food.
What did he do with his clothes? Inevitably, he had to sell them for his money ran out as quickly as he earned it. All he had left was the clothes he wore for the four months that he was homeless and his mother’s batik and scarf inner to remind him of her and home.
As for the other homeless people, they would sometimes scavenge through the rubbish looking for items thrown out by wholesalers. Items such as shoes, decorations and ornaments were good enough to be sold at a much lower price around Petaling Street – enough to earn a few dollars to buy some food. The money could also be used to buy drugs, as pushers were readily available around Chow Kit, Kampung Baru and on the streets.
Hygiene is another problem for the homeless. A chance to clean oneself rarely presents itself. Public restrooms are not a refuge for the homeless as payment is sometimes required. Homeless people aren’t allowed to enter restrooms in shopping malls and mosques. At night, it becomes harder as public restrooms are closed.
Adni recounted how he once had to defecate in a drain because he was not allowed to enter a restroom. I also once saw a homeless man cleaning himself at the water fountain in front of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall.
Sleeping is a frightful experience for the homeless. For Adni, the authorities were never his friend. He was fearful every time he needed to sleep as the authorities – the police and city council – could take him away at any moment.
His sleeping spot was in Lorong Haji Taib in Chow Kit – a strategic spot as it was near Kampung Baru where he could beg for food and only a few kilometres away from Pasar Seni where he could sell his wares.
Getting out of the hole of homelessness is never an easy task. While climbing the social ladder can be done through connections, being homeless is like a social vacuum where the many people you know who are like you are less likely to help you out.
Adni escaped homelessness through a pimp who scouted him out as a sex worker.
For others, their time on the streets can stretch into years as they slowly lose their vitality and become less able to work.
The movement control order (MCO) has witnessed many poor and underprivileged people being thrown out of their homes. Entire families might find themselves on the street as they lose their jobs as well as their means of paying rent or supporting their lifestyles. Returning to their home towns might not be an option since this requires money and their families might not be able to support them.
This MCO has seen many organisations taking the initiative to offer provisions in the form of food to individuals other than the homeless. During this hard time, people must struggle to prioritise either shelter or food.
But supplies run out and the number of people who need help will continue increasing. The problem of homelessness will never be solved until the solutions offered revolve around help in the form of social rejuvenation instead of just keeping people off the streets.