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Homelessness in Malaysia – popularly misunderstood

Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – Pic by Aishah Kamaruddin, April 11, 2014.Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – Pic by Aishah Kamaruddin, April 11, 2014.Homelessness affects thousands of persons across Malaysia – people from all ethnicities, age groups, education levels, and geographic regions. The Social Welfare Department confirmed this in a 2010 survey, through which they counted 1,387 people experiencing homelessness in Kuala Lumpur alone.

Despite the pervasiveness of homelessness, the problem is popularly misunderstood. People who are homeless are typically blamed for their homelessness.

The media and public perpetuate myths of homeless women and men as "lazy", unmotivated people prone to making poor choices-or as deviants who care nothing of society or "being a burden".

Stereotypes like these inspire prejudice against persons experiencing homelessness by presenting their circumstances as "just desserts" for their presumed personal or moral failings.

Naturally, such a harsh view overlooks the fact that no one person has any certain control over the events and outcomes in her or his life – and all human beings, by virtue of our humanity, are just as flawed as we are gifted, and just as gifted as we are flawed.

Tackling insecurities

In recent years, numerous NGOs have been stepping up to address homelessness by providing food, clothing, medicine, and other assistance to persons on the street.

Broad public involvement in the distribution of food and other necessities is a robust sign of concern for homelessness in Malaysia and growing readiness to do something about it.

Nevertheless, a backlash against public empathy for persons experiencing homelessness is also taking place.

Harapan kita, Our Hopes . . . - Pic by Aishah Kamaruddin, April 11, 2014.Harapan kita, Our Hopes . . . - Pic by Aishah Kamaruddin, April 11, 2014.Most often, the distribution of food and other aid is vilified as a practice that inspires people to stay on the streets (as if food alone would be incentive enough for people to give up all other aspects of a good life).

The insinuation is ludicrous, and insulting. No amount of donated food, or clothing, will ever make homelessness go away.

Much of the aid made available to persons on the streets – while essential for day-to-day survival – does not effectively remedy the root causes of their problems.

What we need to do is start addressing the numerous insecurities that underlie homelessness in Malaysia. Unless we do, we are only placing, as the expression goes, band-aids on a gaping wound.

So what insecurities are at the root of homelessness?

For one, there is the rising cost of living and, in particular, the skyrocketing cost of housing. Moreover, dreadfully low wages and poor labour conditions harm the household security of hard-working low-income adults and their families.

Regional disparities prevent residents of less-developed areas from accessing the education, employment, quality of life, and general upward mobility they desire. This leaves some youth with little choice but to migrate to urban areas in search of work to support their families.

Persons with addiction disorders, mental illness and developmental disabilities are often at a stark disadvantage too, as too few people have access to accurate diagnoses or quality treatment.

In these cases, social stigma surrounding mental and psychological health issues means that society is dragging its heels in understanding and addressing, without judgement or discrimination, the myriad challenges they face.

These and other insecurities stem from social and economic problems that are far too large for NGOs to tackle on their own, much less individuals.

So is it realistic to expect that persons struggling with homelessness can "self-reliantly" tackle such hardships on their own?

If large numbers of people are collectively facing similar difficulties, should not the government step in to defend their interests and improve their security?

The role of government

What is the relationship between government and greater security for Malaysians?

Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – M. Shimizu, April 11, 2014.Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – M. Shimizu, April 11, 2014.Let's begin by talking about jobs, since so many people expect jobs to fix the problem of homelessness.

Unfortunately, by virtue of their circumstances, many homeless persons are "lucky" to find jobs that pay poverty wages for long hours of work – in non-permanent positions. Jobs in services and security, for example, commonly require 60-80 hours of work per week and pay only minimum wage – or often less.

In many cases, employers are flouting labour and minimum wage laws – causing workers to suffer.

Can we not create better options for persons on the streets than the misery of having sub-par, exploitative employment vs the misery of not having employment at all?

Either way, as homeless persons know, poverty is inescapable. NGOs can neither create good jobs and secure work opportunities for all, nor ensure that employers treat workers justly by enforcing labour laws. This is the role of government.

Similarly, homeless persons and NGOs cannot create affordable housing where there is none. Even at minimum wage, it would take months of saving money and searching for a place to live to find housing and afford a deposit.

As a result, countless working adults are forced to live on the streets. The stress of living up to work commitments while sleeping on the streets is often unsustainable. This sometimes inspires persons lacking housing to turn to jobs that offer employer-provided accommodation, such as in asrama.

While this may sound like a solid solution, expecting people to rely on employers' accommodation actually hurts, rather than helps, our chances at reducing homelessness and poverty.

Such accommodation is, at best, a short-term answer. Workers living in employer-provided accommodation are more vulnerable to labour exploitation and abuses, which harm their physical, financial and psychological well-being.

Even without such problems, they cannot avoid the fact that housing dries up every time contracts for these short-term, low paying jobs end. And this puts hard-working people back on the streets with astounding speed.

Would middle and upper-class workers be satisfied with such prospects: a choice between the streets or dormitory living, with no end in sight? Why should we expect contentment from anyone else?

Ensuring that all people have access to good-paying, quality jobs and affordable housing would effectively and dramatically reduce homelessness in Malaysia. But, this alone would not immediately resolve problems faced by the considerable number of persons who must live on the streets because of difficulty in undertaking full-time work due to ageing, illness, disability or trauma (such as victims of abuse).

While it is the stance of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development that Malaysian families are responsible for the welfare of their members-and should therefore take care of each other, a look at the streets is evidence that this policy is not realistic, or tenable.

Guaranteed incomes would go a long way in bringing greater security to families and individuals who face such livelihood-related challenges.

Vagrancy laws - laws like the Destitute Persons Act - are designed to exclude, punish and even hide persons experiencing homelessness, not solve homelessness and poverty. – Illustration by John Apoi, April 11, 2014.Vagrancy laws - laws like the Destitute Persons Act - are designed to exclude, punish and even hide persons experiencing homelessness, not solve homelessness and poverty. – Illustration by John Apoi, April 11, 2014.Current policy and its problems

Government agencies have the power to improve work conditions and wages, expand the supply of affordable housing, and otherwise guard the well-being of Malaysians through various policies, regulations, and programmes.

At present, the Federal government has not yet developed any new directives for guiding its agencies in addressing homelessness specifically. As a result, ministries in charge of labour, public health, and other social and economic concerns need not – and I believe do not – consider how matters in their own fields of jurisdiction relate to the growing problem of homelessness in Malaysia. 

The only strategy that the government formally employs to address homelessness today is an anti-vagrancy system provided for by the Destitute Persons Act, under the purview of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development.

For those unaware, local authorities and social welfare departments across Malaysia regularly coordinate actions – often called Operasi Gelandangan – that target persons on the streets for repeated harassment, round ups, drug testing and forced confinement in "welfare homes".

Overall, this system for "controlling vagrancy" comes at a significant cost in terms of public resources and money, amounting to millions of Ringgit annually.

Often referred to as "rescues (selamatkan)" by government and media, anti-vagrancy round ups are harsh and ineffective in terms of their ability to actually help persons in need.

Persons caught in Operasi Gelandangan are suspected of no crime, yet they are stripped of personal liberties and forcibly removed from public spaces. They are taken to various locations by authorities and subjected to a lengthy battery of drug testing and background checks, and released unsympathetically hours later without transportation back to the city.

A select few are remanded and sent, purely at the discretion of the social welfare department and a magistrate, to remotely-located welfare homes.

The Destitute Persons Act deprives citizens of any right to decline state intervention or "rehabilitation", which means homeless persons must endure-against their own will-round ups, detainment (sometimes for years), and other actions conducted ostensibly for their welfare.

Ask anyone on the streets about Operasi Gelandangan and they will usually describe it as frightening and nonsensical: "Tangkap. Lepas. Tangkap. Lepas."

Round-ups such as these have been implemented since the 1870s: a colonial practice cruelly resurrected after Malaya's independence, and callously continued to date.

Repeatedly being picked up and released is not just a waste of time, it is taxing physically and psychologically – and also personally humiliating.

In reality, round-ups serve no other significant purpose than to hound persons on the streets in the hopes of driving, or physically removing, them from sight. Anti-vagrancy systems do not address or solve homelessness, they merely aim to hide it – and flagrantly make life harder for people already facing hardship.

Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – Aishah Kamaruddin, April 11, 2014.Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – Aishah Kamaruddin, April 11, 2014.Stop condescension and blame

Blaming homeless persons for their homelessness, consciously or not, gives us false confidence in the status quo; as long as we believe they are at fault, we need not question how social and economic problems – and even public policies – contribute to homelessness.

While homelessness is certainly most visible for how it affects individuals, its roots lie in larger problems: the widespread lack of adequate income (especially for senior citizens, low-income workers, and persons with disabilities, illness, or injury) and affordable housing, as well as in social and economic exclusion (resulting in, for example, reduced opportunities for essentials such as education, employment, and medical diagnosis and care).

The best way to clearly identify how homelessness occurs is to listen to the first-hand experiences and knowledge of persons who struggle with homelessness.

In this way, we may begin to detect patterns at the root of who is vulnerable to homelessness and why.

Unfortunately, rarely do we hear about homelessness from a first-person point of view. Instead, the media usually provides only "top-down" coverage that lionizes NGOs and government efforts, while describing "the homeless" in condescending terms.

By treating homeless women and men as a non-descript pitiable, powerless mass that needs "rescuing" society fails to understand how and why they struggle.We also fail to understand what can be done to reduce and prevent homelessness, and bring greater social and economic security to all. – Rayna Rusenko (r.rusenko@live.com), April 11, 2014.Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – M Shimizu, April 11, 2014.Harapan Kita, Our Hopes . . . – M Shimizu, April 11, 2014.

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