SINGAPORE: About 1,000 people live on the streets of Singapore, according to the first study done here to measure the scale of homelessness.
The highest levels of homelessness were reported in Bedok, Kallang and in the City, with each district having more than 50 people on the streets, according to the study which was led by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Fewer than 10 homeless people were observed in Bukit Panjang, Sembawang and Sengkang.
The study found that 87 per cent of the homeless people were men. About half of the total were judged to be in their 50s or older. Approximately a third were either separated, divorced or widowed, with a similar number who were single.
In the report, Homeless In Singapore: Results From A Nationwide Street Count, Asst Prof Ng said: “Despite growing public attention in recent years, the size of the homeless population in Singapore has always been unknown.”
Measuring homelessness in a systematic and transparent way enables the researchers to provide guidance for policy and service planning, he said.
Street counts like this should be conducted every few years to provide timely guidance for policy and service planning, he added.
The study focused on street homelessness, about which there is a lack of information, the report said. Other types of homelessness include living in temporary accommodation or moving frequently because permanent housing is not available.
WHY ARE THEY HOMELESS?
Almost half of the homeless people interviewed – 47 per cent – cited unemployment, irregular work and low wages as reasons for their situation.
About 37 per cent gave family conflict and break-ups as a reason, while 27 per cent said they had housing problems such as an inability to pay rent and mortgages or that they had sold their housing.
About 40 per cent of the homeless people interviewed stated that they had housing registered under their name. Fifteen per cent said they had public rental flats, while 11 per cent had purchased HDB flats. Others mentioned having a hostel place or a residence overseas.
Some of them said they could think of safer places to sleep such as with friends, family or at their workplaces, but said they did not do so due to family conflict, not wanting to inconvenience friends, problems getting along with co-tenants, or wanting to be near the workplace.
“These responses show that actual access to better housing options is often hindered by practical and social barriers,” Dr Ng said.
HOW THE STUDY WAS DONE
Asst Prof Ng led a team of 480 fieldworkers which included representatives from more than 20 non-governmental organisations and members of the public. All fieldworkers had to attend training prior to participating in the counts.
Together, they covered all 12,000 blocks of residential flats and other public and commercial spaces over a period of three months this year. The map of Singapore was divided into 298 zones grouped into 25 districts. Most of the zones were in public housing estates, where each zone covered about 50 blocks of flats.
These zones also included public facilities and commercial spaces. In the city and other non-residential areas, zones were demarcated so that each zone would take around two hours to cover on foot.
The volunteers recorded the numbers of individuals who were asleep or going to sleep in public spaces, with some evidence – like bedding and belongings – that they are homeless. The volunteers started their count at 11.30pm or later.
CONDITIONS OF THE HOMELESS
Almost half of the interviewees reported health problems and one in four persons had eaten just one meal that day or none at all.
When choosing locations, there appears to be a trade-off between safety and peace, Dr Ng said. Exposed spaces that are under the public eye are safer but noisier, while quieter places may be remote and render homeless people more vulnerable.
Some homeless people accessed medical care frequently, but half of them did not, including a quarter of those who reported health issues. They also faced dangers such as theft, and were often approached and questioned by law enforcement agencies.
The research also showed that homelessness was often chronic, lasting six years or longer for about a third of them. Half of the homeless persons had been sleeping in public for between one and five years, Some of them did not sleep in public every day, but switched between different housing arrangements periodically.
“Persistent street homelessness combined with constant instability characterises their housing insecurity and indicates the considerable challenges of exiting homelessness,” Dr Ng said.
However, many of the homeless persons had found ways to maintain their appearance, did not keep many possessions, and often slept in spaces that were clean and sheltered.
Dr Ng said that close to half of the homeless people interviewed had sought help in the past year. The Social Service Offices were mentioned most frequently, followed by Family Service Centres and Members of Parliament.
There is room for improvement in the current landscape of public and social services, he said.
“The report highlighted opportunities such as expanding outreach services, offering overnight shelters with lower barriers to entry, and removing the joint tenancy requirement as part of HDB’s public rental housing scheme so that there is adequate living space and privacy,” he said.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said on Friday that it appreciates efforts by the community, researchers and volunteers in reaching out to and helping homeless people and rough sleepers.
“We thank Dr Ng Kok Hoe for facilitating our outreach to respondents who were willing to seek assistance from MSF.
“Homelessness is a complex issue that often involves multiple underlying social issues. Dr Ng’s study observed many different profiles: homeless people and rough sleepers who may have their own homes, Singapore residents and foreigners,” said MSF in a statement.
The ministry said that over the last two years, it has been partnering with community groups and government agencies to reach out to and assist homeless people and rough sleepers.
“Together, we engage and refer them to shelters and help agencies, such as Social Service Offices and Family Service Centres, to address their longer-term issues,” it said.
MSF cited the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) Network, which was launched in July this year and currently includes 26 agencies, many of them religious institutions.
It also highlighted and thanked partners who have opened up their premises as SafeSoundSleeping Places (S3Ps), which “provide safe accommodation for homeless people and rough sleepers to rest during the night, and makes it easier for government and social service agencies to engage them in a timely manner”.
Members of the public who want to help homeless individuals they have encountered can call the ComCare hotline at 1800 222 0000 or refer the person to the nearest Social Service Office or Family Service Centre.