JUNE 10 — We are deeply concerned with the use of Destitute Persons Act 1977 (DPA) by government as a tool to address homelessness and poverty. Since its enactment, the DPA has served as a platform for social welfare officers and local authorities to conduct round ups, such as Operasi Gelandangan, that affect thousands of people experiencing homelessness across the country.
More specifically, the law provides government officers with the powers to take into custody, detain (up to three years) and otherwise intervene in the lives of any Malaysian deemed to be “destitute”. Persons detained are kept against their will in facilities run by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD).
Contrary to media and government assurances, this is not a humanitarian system of rescue, rehabilitation, and care for “destitute persons”. It is a remnant of repressive colonial policies, introduced by the British in 1872.
Like every other anti-vagrancy law of the last 140 years, the DPA is a punitive instrument—both in premise and implementation. It facilitates policing, harassment and forced removal of homeless persons from public spaces, thereby violating constitutional rights to Freedom of Movement, Equal Protection and Personal Liberty.
Through Operasi Gelandangan, government officers regularly subject persons on the streets to raids, drug tests, acts of intimidation and various forms of systematic harassment. “Beneficiaries” of this system cannot decline or appeal intervention by the state. Worse still, the law defines “resistance”, including escape from detention, as an offence punishable by imprisonment. In other words, treatment more closely resembles policing than social welfare.
People who are homeless face a multitude of troubles such as illness, injury, job exploitation, debt, and discrimination, yet practices linked to the DPA only add further strain to their lives by depriving them of possessions, personal dignity and well-being and constitutional rights and freedoms.
As harsh as the current practice is, the MWFCD recently revealed plans to amend the DPA to ensure harsher enforcement and punishment against persons found or feared to be begging. We firmly stand opposed to any criminalization of begging, because like homelessness, it is a symptom of larger social and economic problems. Security in our communities cannot be realised through the denigration and social marginalisation of persons facing poverty and exclusion.
Implementation of the DPA wastes millions in public resources on meaningless raids and detention. These raids and detention rob thousands of people—each of whom would benefit from constructive assistance—of precious time, energy, and liberties.
The time has come to realize that the DPA is not a solution to homelessness and poverty. Locking people away in “welfare homes” neither qualifies as care nor gets to the root of the problem; it is morally reprehensible and legally unjust that we seek to serve someone’s best interests by suspending their constitutional rights.
Homelessness that we see today is a sign of social and economic insecurity. Homeless persons are not the problem. The problem is that, in practice, our employment, pension, housing, health, education, and social protections schemes are full of cracks, which affect all our lives. Government needs to take the connection between these factors and homelessness more seriously. Civil society also ought to start pushing government to represent our interests and take greater responsibility.
Public interest lies in the development of a clear national strategy for reducing homelessness by effectively monitoring and addressing the social and economic issues at its root. Government agencies, including but not limited to the MWFCD, ought to be actively studying homelessness and utilizing information for the development and improvement of public programmes and policy.
We call for an immediate repeal of the Destitute Persons Act and the development of a policy framework for providing greater social and economic inclusion and security for all persons.
Policies and programmes for addressing homelessness should—without exception—be designed in accordance with the equal rights, freedoms, dignity, and needs of all citizens. We cannot fight homelessness by trampling on the rights of persons experiencing poverty and homelessness.
*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.