Housing the homeless in Singapore

DECEMBER 22 — There are at least 1,000 homeless people in Singapore. More precisely a recent study found evidence of about 1,000 people sleeping rough every night.

Now in a city with almost six million residents that’s not a huge number — but it is a concern.

Singapore is known for its wealth, efficiency and cleanliness. Many are surprised there are any homeless people at all. 

But of course, some homelessness is inevitable. People fall behind on rent and mortgage payments; families fall apart and then there’s the issue of mental health.

Some people just can’t cope with settled life and 9-to-5 jobs and their families can’t cope and care for them.

In those cases, and cases of alcoholism, the streets often become a final refuge.

Dealing with homelessness in an affluent, fast paced city like Singapore is complex. There are schemes in place to provide the homeless with paths back to stable housing.

There are transitional shelters which allow the homeless temporary accommodation and care. Schemes like the Joint Singles Scheme also allow two single people who do not own property to rent a small HDB (public housing) flat at subsidised rates.

The Destitute Persons Act also means that people deemed destitute and homeless can be ordered into care by a magistrate — and at this point they will be provided with lodging and support, 

But while these schemes exist, the causes of homelessness are diverse. Various circumstances prevent people from accessing the support schemes available.  Many homeless people aren’t even aware these schemes exist. 

And people who are homeless because of disputes with family, divorce etc may in fact legally own homes and not be eligible for some of the support schemes.

Many people simply fall through the cracks. They may even have jobs but find it hard to earn enough to get back into housing.

Many only realise what support is available after welfare officers and volunteers track them down and this can be difficult as officers find it hard to tell who is truly homeless.

The recent study which identified approximately 1,000 homeless people was among the first to provide an estimate for the number of people sleeping rough in Singapore. And more data and studies are needed to provide a clearer picture of what leads people a life on the streets.

Fundamentally Singapore has support systems in place — but restrictive criteria can make these systems inaccessible to the people they are meant to benefit.

The Joint Singles Scheme, for example, provides subsidised tenancy but it requires two applicants who will ultimately share the accommodation provided.

The applicants may fall out leading to one or both once again becoming homeless. And while the Destitute Persons Act mandates homeless people are cared for, the process of being deemed destitute by a magistrate can be intimidating and restrictive for many homeless people.

More flexibility and more outreach could help take more people off the streets. While some degree of homelessness is virtually inevitable in any large city, Singapore has the resources to reduce it to an absolute minimum and I believe it will.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.