Entitled, “Rude shock for guard” told how a 61 year old man was mistaken for a beggar and taken to the Rumah Seri Kenangan in Seremban where he was detained for 31 days despite his insistence that he had employment. Lim Tian Swee who was homeless, habitually napped at the Pasar Seni LRT station following his night shift. Lim reported that he had been napping there for about 9 months and that there were hundreds of people who also napped there. On this particular morning, an officer from the Welfare Department asked to see Lim’s MyKad and if he had a home. Lim informed the officer that he did not and he and four others were taken away ina green van. Upon arrival to the home, he had to hand over his belongings including his
money, his identification card, and his hand phone. Lim reported that he was stripped naked and given a sarong, a plastic mat, blanket, and pillow. Lim stated that upon release he was not given money to return to Kuala Lumpur and was told he could walk back. Complaints were lead in relation to Lim’s case.
A May 17, 2008 New Straits Times article (De Silva, 2008) described that the number of people attending the Welcome Caring Services Feeding Programme centre, for free lunchtime food had increased from 90 in December 2007 to between 120 to 140 in May 2008. The article stated that the majority who frequent the place live on the streets. Carl D’Cunha the co-coordinator informed the NST that due to a recent increase in
unemployment, the number of destitutes [sic] had increased. On occasion, the centre now runs out of food.
Several points should be noted from the above reports. First, homelessness in Kuala Lumpur is not new, seven years ago FNBKL were feeding homeless people. Second, these stories suggested that there are hundreds of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur. Third, Lim’s reported experience of his treatment was appalling. In essence, he underwent a 10 process similar to that of a prisoner – possessions taken, stripped naked, detained against his will and denied basic liberties. It is easy to see how reports such as this would deter people from seeking the assistance of the Welfare Department. As noted in numerous interviews were held to gain data for this study.
Homeless people, Elites and members of NGOs were interviewed. The interviewees were selected from three sites: FNBKL Sunday food giveaway; Street Fellowship at Klang Bus Station; and PT Foundation Chow Kit Centre. Four ‘elite’ interviews were carried out. Two with very high ranking academics and two with people at the Director level of Government Agencies. A multitude of issues were raised as a result of these interviews and therefore they are summarised beneath. Of the 27 homeless people interviewed for this study the biggest majority were middle aged and older men. The majority of the men were of Chinese ethnicity, who practiced Christianity. It must be strongly noted here, that this study was not a random sample. Almost half the participants were selected from a Christian Service near Chinatown (a small number of these participants were Malay and Indian). This study makes no attempt to statistically generalise its results.
Most of the participants were single (either never married, divorced, or widowed). Less than one third reported being married. Most participants had some level of secondary education with only two participants having any education beyond secondary level. Of note, 19 of the participants reported having children. However, only 6 reported currently being in contact with their children and most of this contact was impersonal and infrequent. Sixteen reported being homeless for more than one year. Of that 16, four stated they had been homeless for between 2 and 5 years, while 7 reported being homeless for more than 10 years. One participant reported more than 30 years of homelessness. Eighteen of the participants reported coming from somewhere other than Kuala Lumpur. The highest percentages coming from Penang 14.8%, Ipoh 11.1% and Johor Baru 11.1%. It is perhaps surprising that almost one third (29.6%) of the respondents come from Kuala Lumpur. Again, while this study does not attempt to generalise statistically, these findings question the belief held by some, which suggests that all the homeless people in Kuala Lumpur have moved to the city from elsewhere. It is clearly not the case.
A number of participants reported the simple history of not having employment/money and coming to the city to find work only to be disappointed and subsequently finding themselves sleeping on the streets. This scenario appears to be the exception rather than the rule. The self-reported causes of homelessness were numerous and complex. Many of the respondents reported disputes with their immediate family, whether that be, partner and children, or family of origin. Oft times, the final dispute would occur after very long periods of additional problems. The final dispute would be the crisis point that would start the homelessness, for example, the respondent who reported an enduring gambling problem, which the family could no longer endure. Another participant described having untreated bipolar disorder. During the manic phases he would engage in extremely risky financial dealings such as trading money on the internet. This would result in heavy financial losses and the subsequent conflict within his marriage. The final conflict took place and the wife asked him to leave. For a number of participants interfamilial conflict would be combined with drug abuse. One participant who reported many years of drug 11 abuse also reported that when she was 17 years old her father tried to rape her. She left home. Another participant who reported a violent father also reported leaving home and many years of drug abuse. For some other participants, issues of sexuality appear to have been instrumental in family conflict. One participant reported that his having contracted HIV caused disputes within the family so he left. Another participant reported that he is homosexual, has a history of drug abuse and is HIV positive. He believed that his family would not be able to accept either and so rather than confront his family with the truth about himself, and potentially cause the family suffering he sleeps on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. He reported that his family is not aware of his homeless status; they think he has a job in the city. Another participant reported that in 1991 he had a motor bicycle accident and was in a coma for 2 months. In June that year his father died and in December his mother died. He became depressed and was hospitalised in a psychiatric hospital then his marriage broke down because of his ‘sanity’. He stated that he had no support and so he started traveling. One participant informed the author that he has schizophrenia and that two weeks prior to interview he had ceased taking his medication. He stated that during his teenage years he used marijuana. However, he viewed alcohol and his anger as his big problems. He viewed the cause of his homelessness as his family rejecting him because they found his ‘Islamic Conversion Card’. He stated that his family could not accept his conversion. Another participant described how he had failed to cope when a girlfriend, whom he loved, ended the relationship. He stated that he made a bad decision and decided to leave his job. He received bad advice from his friends. He left Johor Baru for the city and became a homeless person.
Some points must be noted here. First, some assume that homelessness only commences after people arrive in the city. This is flatly not correct for all cases. Some homeless people were homeless prior to their arrival in Kuala Lumpur. Second, some may assume that drug use commences after arrival to the city or after homelessness commences. Again, this is flatly not correct for all cases. A number of participants reported drug abuse in their hometowns and abusing drugs before becoming homeless. Indeed, for some it appears to have been a causal factor. Therefore, many homeless people have a history of some form of dysfunction accompanied by a crisis that leads to homelessness. At times the crisis may be posited as the cause of homelessness however, commonly a small number of probing questions can reveal that there are long standing personal, or interpersonal problems, which have lead to the crisis. Commonly the dispute that leads to the commencement of homelessness is only one in a history of disputes that have the same unresolved issues at their core.
Almost fifty percent of the participants reported no prior hospitalisation. Two participants stated that they have previously had mental problems. Six stated that they currently have mental problems, while 19 stated that they have never had mental problems. Diagnosis of mental disorder is by degree and somewhat subjective on the part of the person giving the diagnosis. However, it was apparent that several of the participants lacked awareness of their psychological issues. Only one participant stated that they are currently taking medication for their psychological problems. Of interest, 24 of the 26 participants who provided information on the subject stated that their current medical needs are being met. Access to Medical care in Malaysia is readily available to all, and additional to the mainstream medical services, charitable organisations such as Grace Community 12 provide medical care for the poor and homeless on a weekly basis. Many of the homeless people informed the author of where and when they go to receive medical care. Clearly, the information gained from the above interviews, presents as an explanation, a pattern of crisis accompanied by insufficient finances, as the starting point for homelessness in Kuala Lumpur.
Information gleaned from the elite interviews varied greatly. Some of the elites were aware of the problem and were able to offer theories to explain the situation. However, others new nothing of the problem. One even stated that he would be surprised if there were homeless people in Kuala Lumpur since in Malaysia there are many more houses than there are people. This was surely surprising coming from the head of a government social department. Based on the interviews of this study, in general, the attitude toward the government’s services to the homeless is perhaps best described as look warm. Knowledge of government services varied greatly. Many people interviewed were unaware of any services while others thought the services were bad. A small number expressed fear of the Social Welfare Department Malaysia. Only a very small number of people interviewed for this study reported that the government’s services were good. Clearly, work needs to happen in this area.
Several times the belief that people can sleep in mosques was raised over the course of this study. However, the bulk of the data collected, which related to this issue strongly argues that this has not been the case for quite some time. Evidence suggested that due to anti-social or criminal behaviour, the caretakers of the mosques have felt forced to lock the mosques after Isyak prayers. From numerous sources of evidence: newspaper reports, television documentary, direct observation, participant observation, interviews, and physical artifacts, this study has compiled data that shows that there are many homeless Malaysians who sleep on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Among the numerous places they sleep are bus stations, train stations, public gardens, in car parks, in shop and office doorways and on the streets. The shelter that they are afforded falls very short of the definition of adequate shelter proffered by the United Nations Habitat Agenda. Additionally, as stated by the Director General of the Social Welfare Department of Malaysia, the statistics to indicate the size of the homeless population are derived from the number of people who enter their institutions. The Social Welfare Department of Malaysia does not have statistics on the number of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur, nor does the Department of Statistics Malaysia. The findings of this research are in direct contradiction to the Minister’s 2006 Habitat Day Speech in which it was stated that, “no Malaysian is without a shelter, and we can be proud that, comparatively, homelessness in our country is negligible” (Menteri, 2006). First, there are numerous homeless people in Kuala Lumpur. Second, since the number of homeless people is unknown, how then could the Minister compare homelessness in Malaysia with anywhere else?
It readily becomes apparent that many of Kuala Lumpur’s homeless people can get all their basic needs met primarily by the NGOs and charitable organisations: all except a roof over their heads. The following scenario appears to be representative of the process that occurs in relation to homelessness in Kuala Lumpur. Within days of becoming 13 homeless in Kuala Lumpur, a homeless person meets up with other homeless people. These encounters act as a form of information service whereby the newly arrived homeless person learns where to go and what to do. They learn where and how to get food, clothes, medical care, laundry services, and where to take care of their personal hygiene needs. It would appear that the vast majority of these services are non-government. In a relatively short period of time the homeless person is on a path for survival and dependency. As one homeless person put it, “Homelessness is always accompanied by helplessness!”
The Malaysian government has expressed the will to eradicate poverty in Malaysia. Numerous low cost housing schemes are in place. So what’s the problem? The problem for some is simple. They have no job and no money, or they have a job but it pays insufficient wages to provide them with accommodation. As previously noted, one perhaps unintended consequence of the Destitute Persons Act 1977, Act 183 is that it instills fear in some homeless people. From accusations of mistreatment in government institutions to stories of people fleeing from the Welfare Officers of the SWDM, an image of distain rather than assistance is imagined. This paper wishes to make very explicit that the SWDM does a great deal of very, very good work. However, when it comes to the Destitute Persons Act 1977, some welfare department staff must follow legislation and practices that do not entirely endear them to the homeless people of Kuala Lumpur. While Act 183 may rescue some elderly homeless people, there is a component of the Act that criminalises people for being poor. Under the Act the authorities have the right to remove and relocate people. Leave without permission and you can face charges and possible imprisonment. In addition, Act 183 effectively bans homeless people from busking, or what could otherwise be legitimate ways of earning a living. While undoubtedly there must have been reasons prior to 1985 when begging was incorporated into Act 183, surely one would have to reflect upon the wisdom of denying people who have nothing legitimate avenues to earn a living. Playing music and public performance can be viewed as begging under the Act. Quite strange isn’t it that some people will be given licenses to perform and can earn phenomenal amounts of money from singing in public, while people who have nothing are denied the right to sing for food. This hardly fits with the notion of a caring Malaysia.
Thankfully, several social policies that are a great deal more caring than Act 183 have been written more recently. That stated, Malaysians appear not to acknowledge the homeless that live among them. As the saying goes, ‘the fish can’t see the water they swim in’. While the author encountered many examples of Malaysians not acknowledging the homeless, one example is very telling. It relates to a discussion had with a 30 something, university educated Malaysian woman about the people who sleep on the streets. Surprised, she asked, “Are those people homeless?” This negates two facts. First, she sees people sleeping on the streets and second she is unaware that they don’t have homes. This study asked three important research questions: 1. Why is there homelessness in Kuala Lumpur? 2. How is the government responding to the issue? And, 3. Why is there no specific public policy to address the issue?
Clearly, several factors contribute to homelessness in Kuala Lumpur. A person may have an enduring problem that leads to a family dispute and crisis, which results in his/her loss of accommodation with insufficient money to acquire shelter. Alternatively, the 14 person may have a crisis, such as the loss of job, which results in loss of accommodation again with insufficient funding to acquire shelter. These scenarios may take place in Kuala Lumpur or in any part of Malaysia. Upon arrival to the ‘streets’ the person connects with other homeless people who introduces the person to support services. Once the person enters this circle, they learn ways in which to survive as a homeless person and dependency commences. As a part of this process, the homeless person learns about the ‘raids’ of the SWDM and the police. They learn how to avoid them, or what to say to prevent themselves from being taken to government institutions. As one homeless person stated, “Malaysia has become a dishonest country… promises are made but nothing gets done...Malaysia way of life you must lie.” While a small number of the homeless people interviewed have sought accommodation from the SWDM, some do not qualify, some are unaware of what is on offer, and some do not want the accommodation offered. They view being homeless and sleeping on the streets, as being more desirable than the government run institutions.
The second research question this study asked was, ‘How is the government responding to the issue?’ This study concludes that the government’s response to the issue falls very short of optimum. While the government is to be applauded for its poverty eradication successes and the provision of low-cost housing to many people, it would appear that the government has failed to acknowledge sufficiently Kuala Lumpur’s homeless people. The government does not have statistics on the numbers of homeless people and its current legislation appears not to have kept pace with its own desired policies. At surprisingly high levels, there appeared to be ignorance and incorrect information. On a more hopeful note, the National Social Policy and the National Social Welfare Policy could both be viewed as providing the required authorisation for improving the situation. There is always a time-lag between policy launch and policy outcome. Perhaps when the effectiveness of the welfare policies are next reviewed, homelessness could be placed firmly on the agenda.
The third research question that this study asked was, ‘Why is there no specific public policy to address the issue?’ Several factors appear to be most influential. First, lack of awareness or denial of the problem. As this research has shown, Malaysians from many walks of life were unaware of the existence of homeless people in their midst. Even people who have seen people lying sleeping on the streets have revealed that they did not realise that those people were homeless. Thus, in relation to homelessness in Malaysia, (and perhaps in relation to a good deal many other issues) this study coins the term, ‘social blindness’. By this the author means, the individual’s ability to see social situations and to fail to recognise or acknowledge what they are seeing. As has been demonstrated above, in relation to homelessness, people at all levels within society, the public service, and government may engage in social blindness. Therefore, social blindness is one factor that contributes to the lack of a public policy to address the issue of homelessness. A second factor relates to the misinformation provided by government. When a Minister tells the world that the problem does not exist then some people at least will believe it. A third issue relates to priorities. While many are aware of the issue, they fail to give it a high enough priority to effect action. A fourth reason, relates to failure to recognise the possible negative consequences of not formulating a policy to deal with the issue. Circumstances can change overnight and as the saying goes, ‘if you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail’. Malaysia on its rapid development path must prepare not to fail in relation to this issue.
As noted above, Malaysia is a rapidly developing country with increasing rural to urban migration. Warnings about the need to effectively manage development have been plenty. It is therefore, recommended that the Malaysian Government should create a public policy specifically to deal with the issue of homelessness. The Destitute Persons Act 1977, Act 183 should be reviewed and that review needs to incorporate a more caring approach such as that found in Malaysia’s national social policies. The elements of the Act that can ‘criminalise the poor’ should be removed and all barriers to service need to be removed. Future research could identify and study those who manage to leave homelessness and return to a more normal lifestyle. This could potentially provide answers that may help others end their homelessness.