Homelessness in Malaysia: Understanding the Phenomenon

On Saturday, 22 February morning, I attended a presentation on ‘ Homelessness and Human Security ‘ given by Rayna Rusenko, a social organizer with Food Not Bombs Kuala Lumpur. The event was the 2nd in the series of programmes organised by the Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW) as a public service to create awareness and understanding of social issues.

Food Not Bombs Kuala Lumpur believes that:

i. homelessness is indicative of social and economic problems in our society, not personal or moral problems in individual people;

ii. the NGO also believes that people staying on the streets have rights, needs, and interests that must be defended; and

iii. communities have the power to come together and craft their own solutions to problems.

My three friends and I were intrigued by the topic and the event drew a full house attendance of over 50 plus attendees. Rayna spoke clearly and lucidly for over ninety minutes. There were numerous comments and questions after her presentation and that was another clear indication that the topic generated much interest.

What is Homelessness?

According to the Policy Sheet on Homelessness in Malaysia prepared by Food Not Bombs Kuala Lumpur, homelessness can be defined in many ways. It can, however, generally be understood as not having a stable place to live.

People experiencing homelessness often have no choice but to sleep and spend time on the streets. This is the most visible form of homelessness, and one we often see in Kuala Lumpur. Some people have experienced homelessness for years and some for months. Others have only recently become homeless.

Why Does it Happen?

According to the Policy Sheet, homelessness has its roots in poverty and social exclusion. People become homeless for many reasons. Some become homeless after losing or retiring from a job. Some have injuries, illnesses or disabilities that make it hard for them to earn an income. Others become homeless as a result of debt and / or entrepreneurial trouble. Still others have trouble finding employment because of criminal records, limited literacy or discrimination ( such as against LGBTs, rural-urban migrants or minority groups).

Gambling, Domestic Abuse and Depression

Other individuals struggle with gambling or substance abuse. Some people become homeless as a result of domestic abuse, depression or personal trauma. Most of the time homeless individuals grapple with several problems simultaneously. Even though homelessness is fundamentally a problem of poverty, the solution requires much more than asking homeless people ‘ to get a job ‘! Charity is also not enough to solve the problem of homelessness.

As such, enlightened and effective public policies developed in the interest of minimising, preventing and solving homelessness are absolutely necessary. Whilst the corporate sector too has an important role in playing its part more realistically, it is the government that has the primary responsibility of dealing with this problem in a timely, humane and socially responsible manner.

What Can We Do to Improve the Situation?

It is, therefore, no coincidence that socially marginalised and excluded groups, such as people with disabilities, victims of abuse, formerly incarcerated persons, LGBTs, senior citizens, refugees and people struggling with addiction are vulnerable to homelessness.

Problems faced by marginalised groups are often not taken seriously within society. This, in turn, means that people from these groups encounter more difficulty accessing the education, income, health care, housing and other fundamental securities and assistance that they may need.

Myth: Homeless People are Lazy and do not Work

This is a myth. According to the Policy Sheet, many homeless people work, usually in cleaning, security or restaurant positions. A large number of companies actively send ‘ scouts ‘ to the streets to hire homeless people. This is because they are seen as a readily exploitable pool of labour… persons with little choice but to work long hours for low wages and few demands. These jobs often require 10 to 12 hour shifts, sometimes at odd hours. They pay between RM25 to RM40 per day.

Then again, some homeless people who do not work are frustrated by the lack of opportunity to gain fair compensation for their labour. Whether they work or do not work, work alone is not the answer. Access to secure no-exploitative work at living wages, along with appropriate medical and health care is the key.

As we progress towards developed nation status, it is imperative that we all, government, both federal and state, corporate citizens, community service clubs, neighbourhood associations, NGOs and the citizens of this country do their part with a greater sense of compassion and sincerity. In the final analysis, the true test of a developed nation is how it treats its most vulnerable people. Dare we do less?



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