Those who call the streets of Kuala Lumpur home

Homeless people sleeping on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR: About six months ago, a homeless woman knocked on Prof Syed Omar Syed Agil’s car window to ask for money for food.

It was 1am. Although he gave her some money, he was suspicious because it was too late for anyone to be asking for money to buy food.

So he followed her and was surprised to see her walking towards her family members who were sleeping along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. She told them to wait while she went to buy some food.

“It was really heartbreaking. She had actually been truthful. She walked towards a shop to buy a meal with the money. I was shocked and thought, what if I hadn’t given the money or had used another route? The family would have slept hungry that night,” he told FMT.

After that incident, he decided that he could not ignore the plight of the homeless.

The following night, he walked along the streets of Kuala Lumpur, especially Kota Raya, Central Market and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, where he met with other homeless people.

At first, Syed Omar, who is also an external examiner for PhD and masters students at Medina International University, said he listened to their stories in order to profile their backgrounds in the hope of helping them further.

Syed Omar Syed Agil says Malaysia should emulate Finland’s method of dealing with the problem of homelessness.

“But there were so many of them. I spoke to several youths from my housing area in Gombak about this and they agreed to help,” he said.

After a month or two, Syed Omar had 10 youths helping him on a voluntary basis to profile the backgrounds of about 100 homeless families and individuals.

Syed Omar, who is also the director of branding and marketing at a major investment and development company, said there were four main reasons why the 100 families and individuals were homeless.

The first was because some of them were “displaced” from their families.

“Some of their children did not want to look after their parents. The aged parents could not work and became homeless,” he said.

Others were cheated of their salaries by their former companies and unable to find another job. “Being homeless was their only option.”

The third reason was because there were no job opportunities for them and the fourth was that some of them were sick and so no one wanted to hire them.

Syed Omar Syed Agil chatting with a homeless person who speaks good English but is unable to get a job.

“They are hardcore homeless. They really don’t want to be there. There are NGOs giving them food but if there is a job for them, they want it,” he said.

Solution to the homeless issue

Syed Omar said Malaysia should emulate Finland’s programme of handling homelessness. He said in Finland, homelessness is not a problem as individuals are given houses and food immediately and taught entrepreneurial skills to help them get back on their feet.

He said in Malaysia, once the homeless are given shelter, they should be given hands-on training as well in areas such as repairing mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, cooking, sewing, and videography, to make them independent.

“We can work with various government agencies to get people looking for workers with various skills. Once the three or six months’ skills training has ended, we can help them to either work at shops with people who train them or open their own little repair shops,” he said, adding that the type of skill should depend on the interest of the homeless person.

This could end the cycle of homelessness as they in turn would likely hire other homeless people as well, he said.

Syed Omar said his profiling showed that the homeless people had various types of skill.

“There are two Indians guys whom I met – their English is so good. But one of them was thrown out of his home and the other met with an accident and can’t see properly. They can teach English if given an opportunity,” he said.

He added that those who are sick might need medical treatment.

Syed Omar has met Malaysians of all backgrounds and ethnicities for whom the city’s five-foot ways and corridors have become places to rest until the streets come to life again in the morning.

“The economic downturn may cause more people to be homeless. But if society works together, we can be as successful as Finland in ending the homelessness problem with proper planning and implementation,” he said.