KUALA LUMPUR:The pandemic has exposed us to situations that we would have never expected to happen. More people are losing jobs, suffering from loss of incomes as well as mental health due to the stressful environment.

Because of the pandemic too, more people could have gone homeless. So, action plans are needed because inadequate attention has been given to this group despite their increasing presence.

For Malaysia-specific case, past research stated that there are three suitable definitions for homelessness:

1) displaced and marginalised group, 2) the inability to access to housing which caused people to become houseless and there is a possibility of getting homeless and 3) related to bad planning and designing of houses for the poor and hardcore poor.

Matters related to homeless people are under the purview of Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) in which there are three welfare organisations involved – Desa Bina Diri (DBD) for those aged 18 to 59, Rumah Ehsan and Rumah Seri Kenangan for the elderly aged 60 and above, who are sick and left without heirs.  

For simplicity, let’s only look at the case of Kuala Lumpur (KL) whereby there are already plenty of homeless people living on the streets and depending on public’s kindness to survive the day.

Based on a study conducted by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), the most recent figure of homeless in KL stood at around 1,500-2,000 as of February 2016, a substantial increase from 600 in 2014.

There are many factors which have contributed to homelessness. According to a survey done by Department of Social Welfare (JKM) in 2010, the top three factors are unemployment, poor and low incomes, and old age without family members.

Another survey conducted on the homeless in 2014 showed that the common reasons leading to such circumstance are unemployment, debt and chronic illnesses.

Other factors listed include domestic abuse, addiction, depression, personal trauma, discrimination and lack of affordable housing or transportation.

But sadly, the common perception towards the homeless is normally negative – they are addicts or they are too lazy to find jobs but they should not be generalised in such way. Some might not have other options but to ask for the support.

Past research revealed that there has not been extensive research about homelessness in Kuala Lumpur or Malaysia as a whole. Due to this reason, there is no policy or guidelines on homelessness so they are most likely to be excluded from proper benefits or assistance.

Past research has also shown that the issue in addressing the homeless has been due to divided understanding towards the definition of homelessness, thus, making the subject matter complex and producing inaccurate statistics.

KPWKM and DBD categorise homeless as destitute in which according to Destitute Persons Act 1977, it means:

1) Any person found begging in public place in such a way as to cause or to likely cause annoyance to persons frequenting the place or otherwise create nuisance; or

2) Any idle person found in public place, whether or not, he is begging, who has no invisible means of subsistence or place of residence or is unable to give a satisfactory account of himself.

JKM defines homeless as drifters and “trouble makers” so it should not be categorised under the same Act.
Hence, the government and participating organisations need to fix a clear definition of ‘homeless’ in order to prevent inefficient policies or the understatement of the reality of homelessness.

Regular monitoring on the status of homeless should be done, i.e., on annual basis to prop up awareness.
A proper definition would also help in gaining accurate statistics of homeless to ensure sufficiency of shelter and government homes to cater for those who require such help.

In April last year, about 800 homeless people in Kuala Lumpur were placed in temporary shelters during MCO 1.0 in effort to curb the rising Covid-19 infections. Given MCO 2.0, the same action needs to be pursued by doing street count as more people have lost their jobs and homelessness is not impossible.

Helping the homeless should also be a shared responsibility between the government, welfare implementing agencies, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the public as a whole.

Anecdotally, we can observe that an increasing number of NGOs has been on the ground trying to support the homeless people (soup kitchens), particularly since the struck of the pandemic via food distribution, free haircuts, medical aid, legal as well as counselling services.

Therefore, there is a crucial need to welcome active participation and feedback from the NGOs that are relatively more experienced with the homeless. This way, policy formulation or assistance can be suited to those who actually need help and what kind of help they require as each person has their own stories to tell.
The old perceptions of “homeless being drifters and trouble makers” or “soup kitchens are encouraging people to remain homeless and jobless” should not be mainstream.

Other key issues leading to homelessness such as low wages and unemployment and lack of low-cost housing also need to be addressed – providing at least minimum wage, steady employment and perhaps consider a home protection scheme which are more sustainable to put an end to or at least reduce homelessness.

Finally, a Ministerial Working Group should be formed by involving the relevant ministries such as the KPWKM, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Human Resources and Ministry of Federal Territories alongside consultation from important stakeholders such as the homeless people themselves and the NGOs.
Taking an example from the UK, there is a Ministerial Working Group to tackle and prevent homelessness which publishes reports and policy papers on regular basis.

Again, homelessness might appear to be a complicated issue to be solved but should there be no efforts and empathy to start tackling it, more people will unfortunately suffer.

Sofea Azahar is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, a think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.