Living rough during a pandemic – not everyone hates it

Zulkifli Shamsury sorely misses his family this Hari Raya, but this temporary shelter has made him part of a new family of people sharing similar struggles.

KUALA LUMPUR: Living on the streets would not be the first lifestyle choice for most, but some quarantined city vagabonds are quite content with that life while others are always trying to claw their way back to rejoining the rat race.

Zulkifli Shamsury, 53, is one of the latter. He is grateful to have a roof over his head again, even if it is in a huge, spotless quarantine centre in Sentul, along with hundreds of other men and women rounded up and forcibly taken off the streets in the Covid-19 crisis.

Originally from Teluk Intan, Perak, he has been living in the huge hall for two months now. He looks quite dapper despite his year of bad luck.

After losing his job as a security guard, he spent the past year sleeping on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, relying on the charity of others.

He applied for many jobs, hoping to land one which he hoped would provide him with a place to live, however rudimentary.

“I’m alone here in KL. My parents and my brother have passed away, and the only one left near here is my aunt in Setapak,” he told FMT with a sorrowful expression.

“But I don’t go to her house because I don’t want to be a burden to her,” he said, choking back momentary sobs.

“Other than that, there are my sisters back home but I can’t disturb them as they are married and have their own families to care for.”

When the movement control order (MCO) was first enforced, Zulkifli, along with more than 180 others, was deposited in the Sentul Perdana community centre, destined to stay there until whenever the pandemic might be declared over.

At first, all the men slept on single mattresses laid out in precisely spaced rows for social distancing, but now each man gets a zip-up cubicle to keep his belongings in and to give him a little personal space and privacy.

Some men, however, prefer sleeping outside their cubicles, demonstrating perhaps that old habits die hard.

As MCO extension followed extension, Zulkifli realised that this year’s Hari Raya would be spent among these fellow Malaysians with no homes to lay their heads, in a community hall that smelled of cigarette smoke.

Residents of different ethnicities gather over dinner at the Sentul Perdana quarantine centre for the homeless.

But better to be here, he reasoned, with a roof over his head, than living and sleeping back on the streets.

He explained that it was difficult to find food on the street, and it was even hard to find a toilet to answer nature’s call.

He’s a thoughtful person. “Sometimes I wonder what kind of virus this is, that the whole world has been affected,” he mused. “Then I ponder how, without this virus, none of us would have been taken in and kept here.”

Zulkifli still sorely misses his remaining family and spending Raya with them. But the others in the hall with him have now become a kind of family, bonding over the similar struggles they face.

“This Raya I’ll celebrate with my new friends here. They are now my family,” he said.

Zulkifli is among 300 homeless people hoping to land a minimum wage job under a post-MCO initiative by the federal territories ministry.

He has his sights set on working in a Tesco warehouse in Bukit Beruntung, Selangor.

“If I can get that job, that’ll be much better than living outside,” he said, at last flashing a slight smile at the thought.

Several rows down, FMT found Mat Raowi, 50, in his cubicle relaxing in a sarong and a smart red polo shirt.

Mat Raowi, from Kelantan, is thankful to have a mattress, but says he’ll be happy to revert to begging on the city streets once he’s released from the quarantine centre.

His Aidilfitri celebrations usually take the form of Raya prayers at Masjid Negara, followed by a meal at a local mamak stall and then a visit to the cinema.

Originally from Kuala Krai, Kelantan, he has been homeless for 10 years after losing his job. He too was a security guard, the same as Zulkifli, but there are few other obvious similarities between the two men.

“How did I lose my job? Security requires strong people. I’m not strong, I’m weak. I couldn’t last,” the cheerful vagrant, sporting a well-kept beard, said.

Mat Raowi is estranged from his family due to irreconcilable disputes. When he left Kelantan 30 years ago, he was told never to come back home.

“I have no idea where my family is now. I think they’re not in Kelantan anymore but I don’t stay in contact with them.”

After a decade living alone on the streets, he finds that he actually prefers Raya without his family.

“I’m not sad. I like being alone. I’ve made some new friends here, so I’ll celebrate Raya with them. I’m quite happy about that.”

He’s thankful to have a mattress to sleep on and food to eat, but he’s still not keen on being confined in the community centre.

He has no intention of joining the rat race when he is finally released, insisting that he’ll be happy to revert to begging on the streets of the city.

“I can get quite a bit, maybe RM40 to RM50 a day,” he said with a happy smile.

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