The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is a black swan event that has exposed the Achilles’ heels of the world’s systems. It has exposed societal fault lines, bared the vulnerabilities of many countries and signalled the failure of governments. However, at least greater awareness has been raised about these vulnerabilities and issues. But whether anything concrete will be done to tackle them can only be observed in due time.
While COVID-19 knows no boundaries, race, religion nor wealth status, this pandemic does hit some harder than others. Rather than narrowing them, they seem to widen racial, ethnic and wealth disparities caused by long-standing systemic inequalities. Wealth disparity, in particular, has caused lower-income groups like the homeless population to suffer. As such, one of the many vulnerabilities the pandemic has exposed is the difficulty and impracticality of implementing social distancing measures in certain communities. How is it possible for those without a home or for those who have to live in shared spaces to self-quarantine?
The Ugly Truth of Singapore’s Hidden Homeless
In a local context, Singapore is missing an official definition of this term ‘homelessness’. The closest implementation so far that has tried to address its definition is the Destitute Persons Act (DPA) created in 1965. The DPA was created to “provide for the care and rehabilitation of destitute persons”. It was then revised in 2013, maintaining the objective of providing care and rehabilitation for destitute persons. They defined a ‘destitute person’ as any idle person who has “no visible means of subsistence or place of residence”, or someone whose begging causes are considered irksome or a nuisance to the public. However, despite the revision, the DPA’s definition of homelessness is still rather narrow as only a minority of the homeless are considered to be “destitute”. Unfortunately, those who are not considered destitute would be unable to get the help required to get back on their feet, even if they really needed it. The DPA also allows the homeless to be involuntarily admitted into a welfare home, where some are required to reside there until they are deemed ready for discharge.
In 2019, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) led a nationwide street count under the direction of Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe, to report about homelessness in Singapore. Professor Ng pointed out the flaws in the DPA, stating that “It is a mix of wanting to provide care of homeless people, but also wanting to protect the public from them.” Perhaps it was because the DPA allowed the homeless to be involuntarily admitted into welfare homes, which could seem like an intentional act of “hiding” the situation of homelessness from the public.
It was also noted by Professor Ng that there is a growing number of “defensive architecture” in Singapore’s public spaces. The most obvious designs we might see around Singapore are handles in the middle of benches, or even seats at bus stops. To us, it may seem like just another extra handle. But to the homeless, it means one less place for them to sleep at night.
Upon being approached by The Straits Times regarding the matter, town councils and members of parliament (MPs) said this was done to appease residents who were uncomfortable with homeless people loitering around their homes. The design of these areas was thus meant to address residents’ concerns by preventing the homeless from sleeping there. However, such hostile designs of these areas merely deter the homeless from sharing such spaces with the public instead of solving the root of the problem. From the data that Professor Ng has gathered, it seems that Singapore still has much to improve on when dealing with the issue of homelessness.
It is estimated that 150 million people worldwide are homeless while 1.6 billion lack proper housing. Taking the definition of homelessness as anyone sleeping in public spaces after 11.30 p.m. with either some form of bedding or with lots of belongings, Professor Ng’s study revealed that there are around one thousand homeless people in Singapore, most of which are chronic. Out of the one thousand people, three hundred (31 per cent of the sample interviewed) had been homeless for at least six years. Though the total number of homeless people in Singapore only makes up a small percentage of the global number, this news is still rather distressing considering Singapore’s ninth ranking on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.
Another key finding from Professor Ng’s study was that despite sleeping in public areas, the majority of those interviewed actually had a residential property under their name, or had the option to sleep somewhere else. The main reasons for sleeping roughly included unemployment, irregular working hours, inconvenient job locations, or low pay. Other reasons were relationship problems with family members or housemates.
The IAS Gazette also took to the streets to have a better understanding of the situation. Before COVID-19 hit, we found a handful of them scattered around Chinatown. By 11 pm, most were already asleep, and while several had some form of bedding to lay on, there were others lying on the cold hard floor. They often had their belongings placed in big bulky bags by their side. Some had household items such as a chair and even a standing mirror. They were truly Singapore’s hidden homeless, hidden away from the rest of society. The IAS Gazette managed to interview one particular elderly in his 70s who was chatting happily with his friends near a temple. He mentioned that he did in fact have a house to return to, which he would do so every now and then. However, due to his old age, he preferred to sleep in a public area with his friends so they could take care of each other.
The Ones Getting Hit: Singapore’s Homeless during the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely revealed an ugly behaviour among Singaporeans — panic buying and hoarding, flouting the rules that eventually caused disputes, and even making discriminatory remarks against certain nationalities and careers.
Life was already hard enough for the homeless as they were often harassed and kicked by members of the public. Volunteers of Professor Ng’s study found out that several were even robbed of their belongings while sleeping on the streets. Many lost their identification cards (ICs) to thieves and have been unable to afford to replace them. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened their plight as public amenities had to close in April 2020 during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period. This meant that spaces for the homeless to use bathrooms or shower amenities became more limited.
In an interview with the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), a homeless man expressed his hope for Singaporeans to be more compassionate to the homeless. “I hope Singaporeans realise that people become homeless because of circumstances, not because they are lazy. Sometimes all people need is a little respect and support to get back on the right track and become independent again,” he said.
Yet, “Even in darkness, it is possible to create light.”
Even though the pandemic has indeed put all in rather dark times, it has also shed light on the humanity that can still exist at the heart of a crisis. In response to the plight of the homeless during the pandemic, while there were times where people did not empathise with the homeless, there were also some who did. Many individuals and organisations gave an outpour of support, voluntarily extending their hands to help those in need.
For instance, many Singaporeans have offered to open their homes as temporary sleeping spaces. Some even offered to provide food, blankets and other necessities to the less fortunate. For instance, Open Home Network, a volunteer movement initiated last June, was established to motivate Singaporeans to open their homes and hearts to those seeking refuge for up to one year. The movement was led by the founder of social enterprise Solve n+1, Mr Kenneth Heng, and the co-founder of a charity called Homeless Hearts of Singapore, Mr Abraham Yeo. They understood that the pandemic had negatively impacted the homeless, and wanted to provide another avenue for the homeless to reach out to.
Additionally, shelters such as Transit Point @ Margaret Drive opened ahead of schedule to provide beds in the early stages of the pandemic for the homeless in Singapore. Several places of worship such as churches, mosques and temples have also opened their doors to those seeking shelter.
Homelessness in Other Parts of the World
In other parts of the world, the homeless are not as fortunate in receiving help from the community. Within the Asian region, countries such as India were unable to cope well with the virus in the early stages of the pandemic. At the time of writing, India is still struggling to tackle their second wave of infections and currently has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. Delhi is a heavily populated city and many homeless people queued up to collect their food rations there. However, only a handful of people in the crowd wore masks. Moreover, besides the lack of hand sanitisers and washbasins, efforts to enforce social distancing measures were also absent. When a national lockdown was imposed in India in March last year, more than four million homeless people were left with no way to sustain their livelihoods.
The situation halfway across the world did not seem any better. For at least half a century, the West, led by the United States (US), has been viewed by most as an example to emulate. To borrow the words of Samuel P. Huntington, “the power of example works only when it is an example of power.” Though the world often looks up to the US in many aspects such as economic development, technological innovation, military might and so on, their reputation of containing the spread of COVID-19 infections does not seem to gain much of such emulation.
COVID-19 has rocked the US, which is currently leading with the most number of infectious cases in the world. Many cities across the US have large homeless populations that are highly vulnerable. A study by the Coalition for the Homeless indicated that the homeless in New York are 75 per cent more likely to die from COVID-19 as compared to the city’s rate.
The homeless essentially face more risks when contracting COVID-19 infections as they are three times more likely to already have an underlying chronic health condition that was left untreated due to financial difficulties. According to Dr Robert T. Schooley, an infectious disease expert, the homeless can be referred to as a ‘silent population’. This means that outbreaks would be more slowly recognised in their group compared to groups that have better access to medical care.
The outbreak of COVID-19 also resulted in English authorities doing their utmost to house a majority of the homeless living on the streets in places such as hotels, dormitories and shelters. However, such acts of service were only executed due to practical reasons, and not genuine altruism. The rationale was to prevent overcrowding that could worsen the situation. Hence, the once “impossible” task only seemed to have been achieved with a push from COVID-19.
Beyond a Political Issue
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, it was a known fact that the homeless were already a vulnerable group of people. However, the pandemic has further highlighted and called attention to them. The main question is, once COVID-19 is over and the world returns to normal, will anything be done differently? Or will they be forgotten once more?
According to the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), “future pandemic planning must include proactive measures to protect the most vulnerable in our societies, and homelessness must be considered an urgent public health priority.” It is crucial to have cross-sectoral cooperation between the homeless population, relevant public authorities and public health bodies to ensure the safety of all members of society during the pandemic and in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also proven that overcoming the issue of homelessness can be more easily resolved if authorities had enough political will to do so. However, homelessness is not just a policy issue, but also a community one. The reality is that no policy system is perfect. There will constantly be gaps in which society can then only rely on the community to bridge them.