The lonely people of Chin Swee Road
Last month, a 51-year-old homeless man was found dead at a Chin Swee Road HDB staircase landing. CHAI HUNG YIN (firstname.lastname@example.org) and SEOW YUN RONG (email@example.com) visit the area to learn more about the homeless there
It was Christmas Eve, and the Chin Swee Road HDB estate was abuzz with activity.
People shuffled in and out of the estate, children laughed at the playground while the adults sat at a nearby coffee shop.
By 9pm, the number dwindled to around 21 people sitting and chatting next to a Sheng Siong supermarket. Some stole naps in the open to escape the heat.
Come 11pm, the merry estate changed its face.
A few elderly people, some with belongings in trash bags, moved to occupy the benches, resting their weary bodies.
These are the lonely people of Chin Swee Road.
The same scene played out on the few occasions The New Paper on Sunday team visited the estate from November.
Some of the elderly claimed to be homeless but refused help, preferring to be on their own, even hiding from the authorities.
On Dec 9, TNPS met Mr Ang at the open space near Block 52, Chin Swee Road, around midnight.
Clad in a white shirt, knee-length shorts and sandals, he was sound asleep on a bench. Next to him was a black bag stuffed to the brim with his belongings.
The 72-year-old man, who was there on the four occasions TNPS visited the estate, says he has been homeless for over 10 years.
But he was not the only homeless person there.
Two men, who described themselves as brothers, have been calling a secluded staircase landing their home for the past one year.
Another elderly man, regularly seen sleeping outside a row of shops near Block 52, says he has a flat to return to but prefers being outside.
Stall owners of a nearby coffee shop and supermarket staff say they are familiar with Chin Swee's lonely people.
Seafood restaurant co-owner Maxwell Zhu, 29, says: "Sometimes when I get off work between 3am and 4am, I can see people sleeping around the coffee shop or on the corridor."
Mr Sukeman Tohfat, 67, a food stall owner at the Block 34, Pearl's Hill Road coffee shop, says: "They never change their clothes, so they smell. Sometimes they pull along a trolley of things."
BEG FOR FOOD
One particular man, who has been seen in the area for about three years, left an impression on Mr Sukeman.
"Sometimes, he eats leftover food on the table," he says.
"Other times, he comes looking for food. When he is hungry, he will beg for food and sometimes I will give him some instead of throwing away the unsold food.
"They are so pitiful. I'd rather give them my unsold food than to see them scavenge in the rubbish bin."
Regulars at the coffee shop would sometimes offer beer and buy food for the man who occasionally sleeps at the bus stop and washes up at the coffee shop's toilet, adds Mr Sukeman.
Drink stall worker Ooi Hau Lin, who is in his 30s, says he has often seen homeless people resting at the coffee shop at Block 34, Pearl's Hill Road, where he works the night shift.
He says in Mandarin: "We do not chase them away. They do not cause disturbance.
"They sleep with their faces down on the table. They don't line the chairs to sleep on. If they did that, we would chase them away because it would affect our business."
He has seen two to three such people who lug around their belongings wherever they go.
"They usually pull around a trolley or bags full of things," says Mr Ooi.
"There is a 90 per cent chance that they are homeless. If they lived nearby, they would not carry their things around.
"They have never come and beg for food. If they did, we would have to ask them to go away."
A sign saying there is a job vacancy for a cleaner at the coffee shop was seen on the drink stall counter.
Mr Ooi adds: "They don't come looking for jobs either. If they were willing to work, they would surely have a home."
Why Chin Swee Road estate?
Some say they have friends in the area. Others say it is because they can get free meals at the Buddhist Lodge.
Few are willing to leave the area even if it means sleeping out in the open.
This is their home after all.
- Additional reporting by Hariz Baharudin
Out all night
TNP PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR, CHAI HUNG YIN
HE CAN'T GET ALONG WITH OTHERS
Mr Ang says he has been homeless for over 10 years.
On Dec 14, the 72-year-old was spotted near Block 52, Chin Swee Road, at 1.30am.
He was lying on one of the benches opposite a Sheng Siong supermarket.
His belongings were squeezed into a plastic bag and he used a black bag as a pillow.
To refresh himself, he would go to the nearby toilets at a coffee shop across the street at Block 34, Pearl's Hill Road.
"I have no choice, I was forced into this," he says in Mandarin.
Mr Ang adds that he used to sleep under the Merdeka bridge near Nicoll Highway and the Singapore Buddhist Lodge for a few years but fought with the people there.
He then moved to Chin Swee Road because "it feels safer" and has been living there for about a year.
He claims he sold away his late father's home at Lower Delta after a family dispute over 10 years ago.
After selling the flat for $150,000, he gave half the sum to his siblings and donated $10,000 to an old folk's home in Redhill.
With the remaining money, he stayed in hotels for about five years before he ran out of money. He was jobless then.
In 2011, he was rescued from the streets by some officers and was sent to Bukit Batok Home for the Aged.
But he says he dislikes living in homes because "everyone was against me".
"I was in and out a lot and finally escaped about a year ago," he says.
He claims that he used to work as a rice delivery man for over 10 years and his last job was as a cleaner when he was still living at the Bukit Batok Home for the Aged.
Mr Ang managed to save about $3,000 to buy his daily meals.
On days when he feels more energetic, he would take a bus to Changi Beach Park and Chinatown for leisure and food. But he would be back at Chin Swee Road at night.
He has no plans on moving anywhere else and refuses to return to an old folk's home.
A spokesman for Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) confirmed that Mr Ang was previously a resident of Bukit Batok Home for the Aged. But he did not return after leaving for work on Nov 23, 2013.
The spokesman says: "Mr Ang was earlier admitted into the home in March 2011 as he was homeless.
"In addition to his leaving in 2013, he had left the home twice previously as he could not get along with some residents.
"This was despite the changing of his dormitories by the home to address his concerns.
"With The New Paper on Sunday's information, MSF hopes to re-engage Mr Ang to offer our assistance."
THE STAIRCASE LANDING BROTHERS
A pair of brothers, who declined to be named, say they have been sleeping at a secluded staircase landing at Block 51, Chin Swee Road, for the past year.
When approached, the older of the two says this brother used to have a three-room flat at Ang Mo Kio but sold it in 1999.
The older brother, 60, claims they were cheated of their money, that people owe them millions of dollars and a lawyer is fighting a property tussle on their behalf.
Often incoherent, he also claims that they were given a rental flat at Kim Tian in 2005, but the flat was repossessed because they couldn't pay for it.
The brothers now survive by eating free meals at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, about a 15-minute walk away.
Dinner is sometimes a pack of $2 economy rice or bread from Sheng Siong supermarket.
They bathe and wash their clothes at public toilets.
The older brother says he has only two tops.
When asked why he is not working, he says: "I'm 60. How to work?"
The spot where they rest is secluded with low human traffic.
A shop owner on the third storey of Block 51, who gave her name only as Madam Lu, says she started noticing the two men last month. The first time she saw the brothers was when she was closing the shop. She has seen them several times since then.
She says in Mandarin: "I spotted the two topless men chatting with each other while leaning on the balcony some distance away.
"I quickly locked up the shop and left. I am more vigilant now."
In a reply to TNPS queries, an MSF spokesman says: "During random checks around Blocks 51 and 52 on Chin Swee Road in the past few months, MSF officers encountered two men who had homes and were already known to and assisted by the Social Service Office.
"Although our officers are unable to verify if these two men were the ones approached by TNP, MSF will continue to patrol the area and provide the necessary assistance to needy persons."
HE SLEEPS OUTDOORS FOR FRESH AIR
Retiree Paul Wong, 78, sometimes sleeps outside a shop on the second storey of Block 52, Chin Swee Road.
He says: "I sleep here for fresh air. I'm here to read the papers and rest for a while. I will go back to my home later to sleep."
There are several others who do the same on any given night.
Mr Wong says that the shop belongs to his friend and that he has been doing this for about half a year.
An owner of a shop several doors down corroborated Mr Wong's account.
The homeless tend to refuse assistance
CHALLENGE: Jalan Besar GRC MP, Dr Lily Neo, says the homeless who refuse assistance are referred to the Social Service Office.
How can the homeless of Chin Swee be helped? And do they want to be helped?
The New Paper on Sunday contacted Jalan Besar GRC MP, Dr Lily Neo, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
Dr Neo says she is aware of the homeless situation in Chin Swee, adding that there are very few cases.
"Our grassroots volunteers do encounter refusal from the homeless for any form of assistance due to personal reason or their mental state," she explains.
"In such cases, we refer them to the Social Service Office (SSO) for further assistance.
"However, all these remain a challenge as some would refuse to seek help at all."
A spokesman for MSF says it receives regular feedback from the public on needy and destitute people who may require help.
He says: "These include beggars and people sleeping in public areas.
"MSF officers would visit these persons to understand their situations better and where appropriate, they would facilitate the assistance required.
"Needy persons who require urgent shelter would be placed in temporary accommodation where they get lodging, meals, medical attention and even job referrals."
He adds that Singaporeans who know of someone who requires help can refer the person to the nearest SSO where "officers are on standby to provide assistance".
"But as we strive to provide support to the needy in our community, we are also mindful that some prefer to be self-reliant and decline assistance," says the spokesman.
"MSF and its partners in the community will continue to watch over them and render aid where needed."
Dr Neo says grassroots volunteers work hand in hand with the neighbourhood police under the Citizens on Patrol (COP) scheme to patrol the estate.
She adds that the community programme acts as a measure to ensure the safety of residents in the estate and to prevent crime.
"In addition, they also keep a lookout for any homeless people who might be sleeping at the staircase landings, void decks or playgrounds in the night and offer assistance by referring them to the Destitute Person Service (DPS) under the Ministry of Social and Family Development," she says.
DPS has a dedicated 24-hour hotline at 1800-222-0000 for the public to call and refer the homeless for assistance.
Dr Neo says the homeless situation at Chin Swee is "manageable and the homeless do not plague the whole precinct or create any inconvenience to our residents".
"Our grassroots volunteers will continue to work with the neighbourhood police, DPS and SSO to offer assistance to these homeless," she adds.
"In the meantime, the COP members at Chin Swee have stepped up their patrol... and we hope that the homeless are willing to accept our help to refer them to the relevant agencies for further assistance."