AN American author once told of how mortified she was when she saw a homeless woman rifling through the garbage only to realise seconds later that it was her mother.
Homelessness is everywhere. In some of the world’s major cities, pockets of people live openly in the streets. YaleGlobal Online reports an estimated 150 million people of the world’s population are homeless.
It’s unfathomable. We live in a world where there is so much wealth, by right there shouldn’t be a homeless person. In Malaysia, the average breadwinner earning minimum wage spends most of his income struggling to meet basic needs. With spiralling living costs, the task is Herculean.
Accurate figures for the homeless are not available; in a 2016 study, the homeless in the city ranged from 1,500 to 2,000. Today, there are some 8,000. True, Malaysia’s homeless is but a drop in the ocean when you compare it with China, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. Manila, the Philippines’ capital, for instance, is reported to have the largest homeless population in the world — from tens of thousands to several million.
Should Malaysia not start thinking of solutions now before the figure balloons into hundreds of thousands? The New Sunday Times recently reported a proposal that public parks in the city be turned into transit shelters for the homeless and, at the same time, rehabilitate them back into society. While the idea has merit, stakeholders have disagreed, saying it would create disharmony among parkgoers.
This Leader is, instead, suggesting that abandoned buildings, houses or unused government quarters be turned into transit shelters. The Kuala Lumpur City Hall and Social Welfare Department can manage the facilities and get volunteers to participate, such as the mobile soup kitchens.
Open the shelters at 7pm, get the homeless to register — they get food and a place to bed down for the night. It may not immediately solve the problem, but at least they are not out roaming the streets and authorities will be able to keep tabs on them.
In the meantime, a more permanent solution should be worked out along the lines of Finland’s “housing first” initiative, with a solid support structure, which sees the homeless being given permanent accommodation.
Vagrancy is an offence. The point is to understand why they become vagrants. Rounding them up and sending them to overnight facilities is permissible. But authorities must be more proactive. When the job market is bad, vagrancy will increase — there is a need to address this mismatch.
A former Malaysian minister once said “homeless people live an easy life by relying on the generosity of citizens. They prefer to steal or beg for money and food than to have a normal life”. On the contrary, people who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.
Each vagrant has his story. Nobody wants to live on the streets by choice. No person should be homeless if we can have public structures and a policy to allow them to have homes and lead a dignified life. The solution must be humane.
As Eleanor Rosalynn Carter, United States first lady (1977 to 1981) and wife of former president Jimmy Carter, said: “There is nothing more important than a good, safe, secure home.”