How the homeless start new lives as KL tour guides

Rosfadliza and Kam guiding tourists from India and Europe, at Dataran Merdeka. — Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa
Rosfadliza and Kam guiding tourists from India and Europe, at Dataran Merdeka. — Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, March 25 — Rather than just give handouts to the homeless, the Yellow House KL believes in sustainable help.

The volunteer residence which adopts a backpackers concept, helps the homeless through a programme called Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur, where street people are trained as tour guides to show tourists around Kuala Lumpur.

“I believe in sustainable help. If you want to lift people off the streets, we need to first treat them like humans. Ask them what they want, give them dignity,” Yellow House KL founder Shyam Priah, 43, told Malay Mail in a recent interview.

Unseen Tours KL offers a walking tour, divided under three categories: the haunted tour, the street art tour, and the multicultural tour.

In the haunted tour, tourists are taken to places and buildings around KL that are alleged to be haunted as claimed in urban legends.

The street art tour takes tourists to the many creative installation and murals in the hidden parts of the city, while the multicultural tour exposes them to the many places of worship, and the rich cultural diversity.

All tours are priced at RM55 per person, and bookings can be done online. The haunted tour and street art tour takes two hours fifteen minutes and two hours forty-five minutes respectively, whereas the multicultural tour lasts three hours and fifteen minutes. Group tour bookings are also accepted.

To date, 74 tourists from Europe, the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Germany and the United Kingdom have bought the walking tour packages.

The fund for the initial stages of planning and test runs came directly from Shyam’s life savings and revenue from her small community centre-cum-backpackers hostel: Yellow House KL.

“We did a lot of things on our own, from my own pocket. Our first seed grant was received last year, from VIP,” she said, referring to the government’s Volunteering International Professional Fellowship Programme (VIP) under the Finance Ministry.

“I believe in creating a lasting impact for both the volunteers and the people they lend a helping hand to,” Shyam said, adding that plans are also in store to train more street people.

There are currently five tour guides running Unseen Tours KL, who earn an average of RM500 monthly.

Currently, Yellow House manages tour guides’ fees for Unseen Tours KL via a 60-40 social enterprise model, which sees the guides getting 60 per cent from the payment for their service from tourists, with the balance 40 per cent being put into a fund to sustain the programme and to hire and train more guides, as well as to implement future programmes.

Aspiring tour guides are also paid a small token during their initial training sessions in an effort to motivate them. This is also to help them understand the pride in holding down a job and earning their own keep.

Shyam Priah finds fulfillment in giving back dignity to street people, with continued efforts to take them off the streets.
Shyam Priah finds fulfillment in giving back dignity to street people, with continued efforts to take them off the streets.

How Unseen Tours started

The plan for Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur was in the making since 2015, but it was only launched late last year after a gruelling interview and training session to pick out suitable candidates.

Shyam said the tour guide candidates were found at a government-funded rehabilitation camp for the homeless called Kem Pemantapan Jatidiri.

“I went to the streets and told the street people. Okay, I’m going to train the whole bunch of you to be tour guides. But I didn’t have any volunteers, I didn’t have any money and didn’t have a place for them to stay.

“Then I sorted out the place to stay, but then I realised, you need to give them some money even if it’s a practice tour,” Shyam said, recalling her struggles.

Two years later in 2017, VIP helped Shyam design a tour programme.  

The programme kicked off in September last year, with paid training sessions, and the five tour guides officially started in late December.

Josh Kam found renewed hope and is looking forward to his future with Unseen Tours.
Josh Kam found renewed hope and is looking forward to his future with Unseen Tours.

Josh Kam rekindles hope, passion for life

Josh Kam recently moved to Kuala Lumpur last year, after losing his job as a kitchen helper in Port Dickson in Negri Sembilan.

An accident on his way back from work cost him his job at a restaurant, and prior to that, Kam did many other odd jobs to sustain himself.

“My last job was as a kitchen helper. Due to an accident, I stopped for one month. A car hit me. The driver stopped, took me to a clinic and paid everything for me and even paid for my motorbike.

“Just as I thought it was a small injury, it took a turn for something worse and I had terrible swelling on my leg. I couldn’t walk properly. I stopped work for one month. After one month, the boss told me, ‘We were waiting for you, but we can’t hold on any longer’,” he said, adding that he decided to then move to Kuala Lumpur.

Just as Kam was beginning to fit into his newfound seemingly simple and carefree lifestyle here, things took a different turn after a jolly night of drinks with some friends, after he was rounded up and taken to the Kuala Kubu Baru National Service Camp by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.

The National Service Camp at Kuala Kubu Baru was alleged to have been used as a dumping camp of Kuala Lumpur’s homeless community last year, as part of an active anti-vagrancy enforcement prior to the Sea Games which Malaysia hosted.

However Kam denied the allegation, adding that while the homeless were indeed rounded up, they were also given decent lodging and “detox” therapy for drug addicts and alcoholics, as well as skills training opportunities at the Kem Pemantapan Jatidiri.

“I would say it’s a good programme because we stayed there. There were alcoholics, drug abusers and old people. They did help us detox for two months. Then when they released us, they gave us a RM200 allowance,” he added.

Kam then chanced upon Shyam and her Unseen Tours KL programme just as he was about to leave the camp.

Today, Kam is able to speak six languages: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien. He picks up information quickly.

Kam has also been offered a permanent job at a prominent five-star hotel in the city, which he resorted to doing on a part-time basis instead.

Rosfadliza is looking to save up and buy his own home, and help others like him to be independent.
Rosfadliza is looking to save up and buy his own home, and help others like him to be independent.

Don’t overfeed, teach us how to live

Another Unseen Tours KL beneficiary is Mohd Rosfadliza Mat Piah, 34, who has slowly begun rebuilding his life as a tour guide.

The chatty guide dropped out of school after Standard Six and moved to Kuala Lumpur at 16, in the hopes of earning and building a life.

But with no tertiary qualification or money and clueless about life in the big city, Rosfadliza was also “rescued” at the camp in Kuala Kubu Baru. He was reduced to doing numerous odd jobs, and lived off the streets, heavily reliant on the charity and mercy of the public.

In just under four months from his training days to date, Rosfadliza has earned close to RM600 from his tour guide job — a sum he could only dream about when living off the streets.

“When I was on the streets, they gave too much food until it was thrown and wasted by the street people,” he said of the charity organisations that set up soup kitchens.

“I didn’t like this kind of life, and I have even scolded my friends when I see them doing it, wasting so much food. I tell them to only take what they can eat.

“There is just too much food. It’s not the life I want. I want a meaning to mine. I want to work and earn,” Rosfadliza who also did a brief culinary course, said.

Though he appreciated the charity groups who helped feed those like him on the streets, he said constant supply of food would not solve homelessness.

“Because of Unseen Tours KL, from zero, I am now someone. I hope more can help us to see our self— worth and integrate us into the society. That’s what’s important,” the third out of 11 siblings said.

Realising his earning capabilities today, Rosfadliza now aims to upgrade his living standards by saving up to buy his own home and to move out of the Homeless Transit Centre.

*Editor’s note: Yellow House KL was erroneously described as a non-governmental organisation in an earlier version as was Rosfadliza’s revenue as a tour guide to date. Both mistakes have since been corrected. 

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