[Feature image: Kenneth (squatting in background) and a fellow volunteer engaging a ‘rough sleeper’ at an HDB void deck]
By Kenneth Wong Jun Jie, Undergraduate, SMU School of Accountancy
While most would expect young college students to be chilling out on weekends after a week of studying and school assignments, I spend my Friday nights quite differently: I walk the streets of Singapore to befriend homeless people.
At around 10.30pm most Fridays, I meet up with fellow volunteers from Catholic Welfare Services and we split up into smaller groups before spending our night searching for homeless individuals, who are also called ‘rough sleepers’.
We walk around the Ang Mo Kio district for about three to four hours each time, right into the wee hours of the next morning. When we meet these ‘rough sleepers’, we try to talk to them and understand their situations before deciding if we can help them by referring them to the relevant authorities for assistance. We also provide care packages, which comprise of face masks, hand sanitisers, food stuff, and other essential items donated by volunteers.
Two years volunteering for the homeless
I have been volunteering most Fridays since January 2019, and have gone on more than 80 such ‘outreach walks’ so far. Each time, I meet an average of about 15 homeless individuals.
I remember my first walk very vividly and was kind of affected seeing how many homeless people are living on our streets. I realised then that within our so-called ‘crazy rich’ city, many individuals fall through the cracks and are left alone, almost forgotten by society—this, despite the many schemes and initiatives that the government has put in place to assist the needy. Some of the intended beneficiaries, unfortunately, are just unable to gain access to or know about these avenues of help.
I have personally assisted a number of homeless individuals transit into temporary shelters, some into permanent housing.
Mdm “W”, a 70-year-old ‘rough sleeper’ whom Kenneth met and helped. She now sleeps safely in a shelter
A 2019 study conducted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy reported that there are approximately 1,000 homeless individuals in Singapore at any one time. Through my interactions, I realised that every ‘rough sleeper’ has his or her story as to how they ended up on the streets. I learnt also that it is important not to generalise cases but empathise and try to understand each individual. From my interactions, I also learnt that most of the homeless situations in Singapore are the result of low wages, family conflicts, drug addictions, disabilities or sexual abuse.
Providing food for the homeless
During Singapore’s circuit breaker period in 2020, an increased number of ‘rough sleepers’ sought assistance and transited into temporary shelters, and this led to a shortage of food resources in the shelters.
I saw the urgent need for food, so together with three close friends, I started a ground-up initiative, Food for the Homeless Singapore. Through fundraising efforts, the project provides fresh meals for homeless individuals residing in various temporary shelters across Singapore. The project’s Instagram page further acts as a platform for readers to share stories of the homeless, or their experiences, to hopefully inspire others to contribute or help.
Kenneth (top left), together with three of his close friends, started a ground-up, fund-raising initiative during the circuit breaker period to provide meals for the homeless
In the last six months, we raised over $8,000 in cash donations through family and friends and have since utilised the money to provide over 1,200 fresh meals, groceries, and emergency furniture to more than 60 homeless individuals living in six temporary shelters. These beneficiary shelters that we partner with are under the government’s Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) network, which was set up in July 2019 by the Ministry of Social and Family Development as demand for services to help ‘rough sleepers’ increased.
Our work for Food for the Homeless Singapore is still ongoing and will continue for as long as there is a need for it. Even today, many of the shelters are still dependent on us to fill the stomachs of their temporary residents. We feel so blessed that we can help these shelters help those in need.
Kenneth (far right), together with his friends, delivering fresh meals to a very grateful caretaker of one of the homeless shelters
The season of giving
During the recent year-end festive season, on top of giving out our usual care packages, we also prepared gifts and cards for the homeless people we met during our walks. The gifts included new water bottles and windbreakers—items which the ‘rough sleepers’ had requested for. Although they were the ones receiving gifts, the experience had gifted us, the volunteers, with heart-warming lessons on humanity.
The team together with a ‘rough sleeper’ wearing his new windbreaker Christmas gift
Why I volunteer
When I started my studies at SMU, I knew that apart from pursuing academic and career successes, I wanted to serve the community. Thus, I told myself that no matter how busy and tough university life would be, I would commit some time to serve the homeless.
When I first started volunteering, it was challenging, but I soon learnt to manage my time. With discipline and commitment, I was able to juggle my schoolwork, heavy involvement in four CCAs (I am a part of SMU Conjunct Consulting, the Accounting Society Management Committee, SMU FIDES, as well as Project Namaste XII), and still devote time to helping Singapore’s homeless.
Apart from continuing to serve the homeless in Singapore, I hope to help the poor, marginalised, and forgotten in our society. My career goal is to be a strategy consultant, so that I can utilise the skillsets learnt from my career to provide pro-bono consulting services for non-profit organisations.
University can be tough and competitive, and it is easy to get lost in the scramble to perform and do well. While there is nothing wrong with such aspirations, I want to inspire others to strive not just for academic and career successes, but to also remember the less fortunate in the society and to lend them a helping hand if we can.
It is my belief that if we can all use our individual talents to support and empower causes we believe in, we will be able to leave a sustainable social impact in our society.
[All photos courtesy of Kenneth Wong Jun Jie]
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