The dimensions of homelessness

Ramadan tends to be the time when we read more about people experiencing homelessness than at any other time of the year. That is because being homeless is so closely intertwined with the act of people giving them food (street feeding) and the associated food waste and garbage that is the typical aftermath when too much is given.

Responding to “Those who call the streets of Kuala Lumpur home”, I want to congratulate Prof Syed Omar for not giving money to a person experiencing homelessness, but instead, making the effort to dig deeper and interviewing them to unearth best international best practices on managing the homeless.

Think City is an urban regeneration think-and-do tank with a track record of developing innovative solutions based on data and community engagement. Operating in downtown Kuala Lumpur since 2015, there are few projects where businesses and residents do not raise the issue of homelessness.

As a result, Think City has undertaken collaborative research and engaged many NGOs and government organisations to identify new ways forward. Numbers at the annual count by DBKL change from year to year, but around 1,000 homeless people in 15 hotspots signal a rise in human insecurity. Their needs and welfare deserve to be considered alongside others as we work towards regenerating Malaysia’s inner cities.

Before planning any intervention, the goals need to be clear. Is it about (1) preventing homelessness (economic and social policies), (2) making it more bearable for those experiencing homelessness (providing food, medical services, shelters, clothing & grooming etc), or (3) supporting people to leave homelessness? While all three are required, in Malaysia the emphasis is on 1 and 2, with fewer organisations working towards the last one.

Looking outside of Malaysia for workable models, it becomes clear that research and data is mostly available from developed nations, with very little data and even fewer published interventions from other countries. Finland’s “Housing First” seems to be the programme many developed countries are now adopting. It is premised upon the approach that long-term housing has to be provided before addressing individual issues such as health, addictions, legal issues, family violence etc.

However, homelessness is not just a lack-of-housing problem, and Housing First has worked well where individualised “wrap around” services are provided. The whole programme is embedded in a national approach with roles for all sectors.

In 2018, Think City and 19 NGOs decided that we could collectively achieve more. With support from Community Solutions in the US, we trialled a registry week where 140 volunteers interviewed 245 people sleeping in downtown Kuala Lumpur to assess their vulnerability. The idea was that with limited resources, interventions should focus on those most at risk and vulnerable, rather than on those who are functioning well and are likely to find their own way out of homelessness. During the data collection at night, we were so humbled when homeless people we interviewed offered to escort us through the night and watch over us so we could concentrate on the interviewing.

What was missing in our registry week was the inability to refer homeless people straight to a service provider that meets their needs. For example, we met some very sick people, but there was no central register of government and NGO services. Our partner NGO Hub is now in the process of developing an easily accessible service register. We also wondered if we could develop a win-win solution for homeless people and local businesses.

In partnership with Yellow House, we are about to start supporting homeless people around the former Bangkok Bank building at Medan Pasar by providing casual employment to those who want to work by offering jobs lasting a few hours a day such as cleaning and other odd jobs. Given that the average length of homelessness is 10 years, for those on the streets for more than a year, starting with short-term work is expected to be more successful.

Thirdly, we could not find evidence of any developing country having trialled Housing First, so we have developed a detailed Housing First–Services First service model and are working towards its rollout.

On the matter of food distribution and waste, it is exciting to see that another group of NGOs has been working on developing a food rescue ecosystem to prevent wastage in order to pass it to those struggling to make ends meet. To reduce wastage while ensuring food safety, there needs to be drastic improvement in the coordination of handing out meals. To this end, fixed or set food distribution centres may be better than randomly handing out food in the streets.

Developing a shared vision and strategy across sectors would provide a framework where organisations can find their niche to contribute. In the meantime, Think City and partners will continue the initiatives they have started, and welcome all forms of support from other like-minded organisations or individuals.

Uta Dietrich is Think City’s senior programme manager.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.