The homeless community of Kuala Lumpur is quite a misunderstood bunch. Full of mystery. So mysterious, in fact, that we can’t even paint a proper picture of their situation.
“They all a bit gila one”
“Lazy bums, go get job lah”
“Confirm ambik dadah they all, dats why no money”
“Hold your handbag tighter, later kena curi if you walk past them”
But you may already guess – these are general misconceptions that many with-home people have about without-homes. But even those may not rival the misconception against Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan who gave away home appliances to people with no homes. (Yeah that same guy who ordered a ban on soup kitchens from feeding them cos homeless people = bad for KL’s image.)
“We found them work. They’re so lazy. After two days go and work, they run away. Then when we find out, they say it’s easy to find food in other places. That’s the problem,” – Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, Federal Territories Minister
And then there’s the Women, Family and Community Development Minister, Datuk Rohani, who thinks that the abundance of good samaritans going out of their way to help the needy is considered as spoiling them.
“Some of them are able to work, but choose not to because they know there are parties willing to feed them,” – Datuk Rohani Abdul Karim, Women, Family and Community Development Minister
Easy right? Lepak tepi jalan. No need to clock in and out of work like the rest of us do. Makan free. Tidur free. No need to pay taxes. Sounds like the life! All of this seem tempting to you yet? Are you finally considering quitting your job to live the sweet homeless lifestyle?
As someone who has worked closely with KL’s homeless community for the past 5 years, I’ve put together a little guide what it’s like to be homeless on a daily basis. (Yes, they’re based on my personal accounts.)
1. You’ll need some pretty thick skin
Your alarm goes off. Eyes still closed, you reach out to hit that snooze button for just 5 more minutes of shut eye. You wanna tuck into your blanket when you realize it’s…newspaper. And the comfy mattress you were sleeping on turns out to be an unfolded cardboard box. What’s it like to have the rug pulled out from under you? The life you once knew, gone.
That’s what it’s like for most homeless folks. People tend to forget that they USED TO HAVE HOMES. A lot of them came from outside of KL, leaving behind their kampungs in search of a better life. With dreams and promises of bigger opportunities, they leave behind their family and friends in hopes of finding a better way to support them. Turns out the big city life is pretty brutal.
Could you possibly leave the comfort of your current life behind just like that? If you were to be homeless, how do you convince people that you’re just out there trying to make an honest living as you struggle to make ends meet? Can you handle all the passersby that pandang slack at you, thinking that you come from a life of drugs or crime, as you try to make yourself comfortable on the sidewalk at night? Can? Then memang thick skin champion la you.
2. Get ready to enter a super tough job market
“Wait a minute, did you just say job?”
Yes. Job. Kerja.
This is another common misconception among the general public, that the homeless are beggars. These terms are often incorrectly used, most people thinking that they are one and the same. Allow me to shed some light on the usage of the terms, and clear out the confusion.
Beggars always ask for cash, almost never accepting food. We’ve all encountered them at one point in our lives, whether it’s a woman carrying a (usually sleeping) child by the roadside, or a blind man with his guide stopping by your table at the mamak. Holding out a cup for you to toss in some spare change. People are usually wary of their connections to syndicates, most of that money doesn’t even go to the poor soul. They are exploited as tools for bigger fish to gain easy income, thus people are reluctant to fork out their money and tend to avoid eye contact even.
Homeless folk on the other hand, most often have jobs. SURPRISE. In fact, you most likely won’t see them on the streets during the day because they’re out there doing regular work like the rest of us. The difference is that they don’t earn enough to even afford a roof over their heads. With the ever increasing prices of property in the city, some just can’t keep up, working various odd jobs to make just enough to survive after sending some money back to their families in their hometowns. But still, they are met with the same dirty glances from the public.
And yes, getting a good job when you barely have access to showers and clean clothes is quite difficult. That’s why most homeless folk are stuck doing odd jobs or manual labor, which pays peanuts. Try going for an interview without taking a bath or with worn out clothes, you probably wouldn’t make it past the reception desk. And you thought your LinkedIn profile not looking impressive enough was bad.
3. Get ready to starve… even with soup kitchens
Recipients can queue up for hours, sometimes in the rain, as they wait for what could be their first and only meal of the day. Sadly, some might not get their hands on that fancy meal of nasi putih, lauk, and some kuih because the food prepared for the night habis already.
Imagine the disappointment of someone running to make their way to a soup kitchen just as their night shift job finishes, only to walk away with empty hands and an even emptier stomach. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night. Can tahan until then or not? Remember, tomorrow need to go to work with perut kosong summore…
4. You gotta be your own real estate agent
You got your cushy cardboard box in hand, maybe an old blanket or pillow if you were lucky enough in your recent trip to the dumpster, next step is to pick where to call it a night.
The dark alley behind that building seems comfy enough. CHUP. You might fall victim to actual criminals who will steal whatever little belongings you have left. Yes, homeless people can become victims of crime as well, in fact, they are easier targets.
Okay then, how about that brightly lit bus stop there? Nobody is gonna rob anybody out in the open right? True. But damn silau right with all the lights? Main road so busy summore with all the cars driving past making a lot of noise. Plus, being out in the open leaves you vulnerable to a different kind of threat: DBKL raids.
Under the Destitute Persons Act 1977, the authorities have the power to scoop you up in the middle of the night (from witnessing these raids first hand, they can get quite rough) to supposedly put you into a welfare home. In reality, most of the time they just detain you for the night, and dump you back on the streets the next day. Not bad lah right at least got place to sleep? But is a cell really where you want to spend your night?
5. Be ready for super-kepoh surprise visits
And by this, we don’t mean from your annoying relatives. We mean…. POLITICIANS.
There will be times when the queue at the soup kitchens seem to take ages. When you’re woken up in the middle of the night to a barrage of camera flashes and people. Telltale signs of a politician making an official visit of goodwill to
boost their PR bestow their blessings upon you.
They will want cheesy pictures with you while they hand out food. Some might even go as far as to shake hands with you.
But realistically, this completely slows you down from getting your meal for the night. When all you want to do is get your food and go, suddenly have to deal with all this.
What to do? Tahan only lah. Unless you somehow love taking pictures with them, in which case go nuts.
But you’ll have friends… Good ones.
Introverts be warned, being homeless isn’t a solitary affair. Most of the time, your survival relies on being part of their strong, tight-knit community.
They are a community that looks out for one another, spreading news of any charity events that are giving out food, sharing the food when there isn’t enough for everyone, to something as simple as looking after their neighbor’s belongings. Heck, they even trust each other with their children. Kids running around greeting their “kakaks”, “pakciks” cradling children as if it was their own. A group of people who are otherwise complete strangers, turn into one big family.
They are also fiercely protective of the volunteers who provide the aid to them on a daily basis, becoming unexpected superheroes who fight off any troublemakers. I have personally witnessed first hand, where the homeless came together to hold off a drunk driver from ramming into a group of volunteers. There are also some cases where a drunk gets violent and starts harassing the volunteers, only to be chased away by the rest of the people waiting in line. These people want no trouble, they know where their food comes from, and they will do anything to protect it.
The fact that they share a common hardship, has brought them together in a way not much else could. The bond they create among themselves fills in the void left behind by the family and friends that they no longer have. Some of the older folks on the streets have been abandoned by their own children. Some ostracized by their own families for a mistake they made ages ago. What better way to patch that emptiness than by building friendships with those who are experiencing the same?
Think you can handle all that?
Could you willingly go through all of that hardship, and still have the courtesy to be polite and smile like these people always do? If you think you got the chops, then homelessness might be for you. Otherwise, let’s start changing the way we look at the homeless.
The best way to understand their situation better is by volunteering to witness their lives up close for yourselves. You may get in touch with any of the various Soup Kitchens in KL to learn more:
Refer to the organizations above if you wish to lend a hand or donate anything, each one might have different policies. Generally clothes are most welcome (anything but home appliances…). If you are able to connect the homeless with potential employers, even better. You could possibly make a difference in someone’s life.