Monday, 4 December 2017

The Surprising Truth About The Homeless In Singapore

Update 11 Nov 2019: In wealthy Singapore, about 1,000 people sleep rough every night
A rough sleeper in Singapore. Photo: Yusuf Abdol Hamid

A landmark study on homelessness in Singapore has found that on any given night, between 921 and 1,050 people sleep in public spaces such as parks and unenclosed lobbies.

Most are older men who sleep rough because they cannot afford housing, want to be near their workplace or have issues with family members or housemates, among other reasons.

The study was led by assistant professor Ng Kok Hoe at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, with the help of 480 volunteers, social workers mobilised by the government, and NGOs conducting fieldwork over three months.

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Housing the homeless in Singapore

Since May last year, government officers have been walking the streets with community groups to reach out to the homeless in Toa Payoh and Kreta Ayer. This team effort has so far engaged at least 65 rough sleepers and moved about 30 off the streets. Lee Li Ying with this exclusive report.

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Poor in the Land of Crazy Rich Asians
An old woman with a cart sits in front of a Buddhist temple Chinatown, Singapore. Mapa Melvin /

Park Royal Hotel along Pickering Street in Singapore is nothing short of spectacular. Lush greenery lines the undulating planes of its facade, mimicking the vibrant green of paddy fields that are common sights in the country’s Southeast Asian neighbours. The building has won numerous architectural and design accolades, and been featured as a location in the Hollywood film Hitman: Agent 47.

But walk a few paces past this impressive glass facade, deeper into the heart of Chinatown, and the surroundings start looking a little different.

Pieces of paper are strewn carelessly on the ground; there’s a seemingly impenetrable layer of grime. Here, the buildings are older, tinted yellow from long exposure to the elements. Come nightfall, men and women, carrying their possessions in backpacks or plastic bags, will discreetly unfurl blankets and newspapers on street corners or stone benches to get some rest for the night.

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More allegedly homeless seniors spotted sleeping at Zion Road Hawker Centre

Members of the public have been sharing photos and videos of allegedly homeless men sleeping overnight at the Zion Road Hawker Centre area.

According to the hawkers who work in the food centre, only about two men were camping out in the area regularly about five years ago but that number has steadily grown with 5 to 6 men in their 40s to 60s now sleeping overnight in the area regularly.

These middle-aged and elderly men have been spotted sleeping on the hawker centre benches and the stone benches bordering the Zion River, keeping their personal belongings underneath the hawker centre tables as they rest on the benches. Others reportedly lay paper or newspaper on the ground and sleep there.

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A True Story

As I was walking through Chinatown last week, I passed a man. His shirt was dirty. He smelled bad. He looked sick and was maybe developmentally challenged. He seemingly carried all his possessions in two plastic bags.

Yes, there are homeless people even in prosperous Singapore.

As he passed I thought about the $50 bill I had in my wallet that I was saving for milk, lunch or a taxi. After a few seconds, I turned around to go give it to him but he was gone.

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Six things you did not know about the homeless in Singapore

The destitute in Singapore City

The sun has set and the offices are empty, but not everybody has gone home. In prosperous Singapore, there are people who sleep on the streets each night.

A group of youth from a local church have been befriending the homeless in North-East and Central Singapore for the past 1½ years. They visit over 40 homeless people once a week, each time bringing food and water while checking on their health and well-being. I joined them on six visits and met over 25 homeless people over three months.

Here are six things about the homeless in Singapore that I learnt:
  • Not all are actually homeless
  • Their generosity put me to shame
  • People steal from the homeless
  • They love to have conversations
  • You may not be helping by giving them money
  • They hide in plain sight

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You won’t believe how many homeless people there are in S’pore

Singapore is known as a well-developed country where the basic needs of people are met. Singapore is one of the richest country in the entire world with one of the highest number of millionaires living within a country and we are also proud of the fact that Singapore only took a measly 50 years to develop from a poor, third world country to a country with a first-world economy.

Public housing is adequate thanks to HDB,  and the CPF scheme gives Singaporean couples the ability to buy their first home. There are also schemes to provide assistance to the poorer groups of the population. Sounds perfect, right?

So, if we were to tell you that there are homeless people in Singapore, and not just one or two, but a pretty significant number of people, will you be shocked? Well, here’s what you got to know.

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180 found sleeping on streets

Of the 180 people found sleeping outdoors by volunteers over a 5-hour period in March, 21 had been sleeping outdoors for more than a year and 18 for more than 5 years. ST FOTO: DESMOND WEE

Over a 5-hour stretch, 100 volunteers found 180 people sleeping outdoors across 25 locations in Singapore. Most were men aged above 50, & a good proportion had jobs.

This point-in-time survey is believed to be the 1st of its kind here. It was done in March by volunteer welfare organisation Montfort Care & volunteer group SW101, which focuses on issues facing low-income individuals.

Of the 180 people, 84 answered some or all of the survey questions, which ranged from personal particulars, like age & educational background, to home ownership. The rest declined or were already asleep. Those sleeping outdoors were found mainly in parks such as East Coast Park and at HDB blocks.

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Homeless stereotypes busted: Most hold jobs, have been destitute for over a year
24-hour fast-food outlets, malls & public parks are some of the places where the homeless sleep at night

3 in 5 of those surveyed hold jobs, many full-time; 1 in 4 on the streets for more than 5 years; and half are aged 41-59

Most of them have jobs, & more than a quarter have a flat in their name, primarily rental flats.

And yet, the majority have been sleeping in public places for upwards of a year or beyond.

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Homeless in Singapore

Singapore is many things — it’s a fine city, it’s a garden city, and it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. But peer through its clean, shiny veneer and you’ll find something else: the homeless among us.

In March this year, a first-of-its-kind street survey on the homeless in Singapore was conducted by volunteer welfare organization Montfort Care and volunteer group SW101, which helps low-income individuals. Over the course of five hours — from 9pm to 2am — 100 volunteers found 180 people (mostly men) sleeping outdoors in 25 locations across the island, mainly at parks, shopping centres, and HDB blocks.

The Straits Times reported that out of the 180 people, 84 gave responses to the survey questions, which included ones on personal particulars and home ownership. The others either declined or were fast asleep. About 21 of them had been sleeping outdoors for over a year, while 18 had been doing so for more than five years.

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More complex than meets the eye, Singapore’s homeless struggle to find support

For the last 4 months, odd-job worker Chua Teo Aik, 64, has been wandering the streets by day & sleeps by the waterfront in the Marina Bay area at night. Foto: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Homeless people are dirty, lazy, & probably crazy, many may subconsciously think.

This stereotypical image does not seem to fit Singapore’s homeless, going by what a recent survey report found.

In findings released last week, volunteer group SW101 and volunteer welfare organisation Montfort Care revealed that among 180 people found sleeping on the streets one night in Singapore, almost two-thirds of those interviewed have a job, and more than a quarter have a flat to their name. 1 in 4 are even married.

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A fresh look at homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue without a quick or 1-size-fits-all solution. Some displaced people reject intervention by the authorities because they do not want to be compelled to continue living with families or co-tenants. These strained relationships cannot just be blamed on personal traits as they may be born out of deeper conflicts.

Volunteers have also found that a number of displaced people exhibit some form of mental or physical disability, & these people face challenges adapting to life in shelters.

Even the concept of a home for a displaced person may be different. For some, it is not about "owning" a place or having a roof over their heads for the night. It is about having a place where they feel safe, in control & surrounded by people they get along with.

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7 Children and 18 Grandchildren, but 80-Year-Old Ah Ma Sleeps on the Streets of Chinatown

Mdm Tan is neatly dressed, carries a clutch bag and pushes a trolley. From appearances, it’d be hard to tell that this 80-year-old ah ma sleeps on the streets of Chinatown – most would think she’s just lepak0ing there to while away the time.

Mdm Tan usually sleeps on a stone bench in front of the CK department store in the area.

This, despite having 7 children and 18 grand-children. Speaking in Hokkien (the only language she knows), Mdm Tan said that she used to run a kway teow noodle stall in the Orchard Road area. But her husband, who’s 20 years older than her, passed away 11 years ago. She sleeps on the street as she is not on good terms with her children.

“It’s uncomfortable and I can’t even lie down and sleep so I just sit down and slowly fall asleep. I only hope now that someone can help me find a place to stay.” Mdm Tan says she has no money, and her handphone is always running out of battery. But, she says she’s lucky that there are people who give her 3 meals a day for sustenance.

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He's 35 and homeless: Eight years of destitute living

The first time I meet Ben & we shake hands, I am immediately assailed by the scent of cologne. Over lunch, the intense fragrance almost overpowers the aroma of roasted coffee beans.

“Actually,” he says casually as he twirls his straw, “I haven’t bathed for a week.” Oh, I think, as I give him my best unfazed nod and an “I see”.

He peers at me for a good three seconds, then breaks into a huge smile. “Wah, your poker face is damn good. Usually people will be grossed out. “But I’m joking lah. I did shower,” he adds gleefully. “You actually believed that?”

related: Homeless stereotypes busted

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Once bitten, twice shy homeless man chose not to get rental flat

In the Spotlight: Once bitten, twice shy homeless man chose not to get rental flat

For the last 4 months, odd-job worker Chua Teo Aik, 64, has been wandering the streets by day. He sleeps by the waterfront in the Marina Bay area at night.

Mr Chua chose not to come under the Government’s Joint Singles Rental Scheme after a bad experience with his first roommate, who was trying all means & ways to kick him out of the house. He is one of at least 3 “regulars” TODAY found in the vicinity of the Esplanade in Marina Bay.

These days, Mr Chua can usually be spotted wheeling a pink, cabin-sized piece of luggage around Singapore’s city centre. The luggage contains all his worldly possessions: a jacket, some oranges, 3-in-1 instant coffee sachets, neatly filed photographs of himself, some old letters, and his passport.

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Homelessness in Singapore: How much do you know?

The issue of homelessness is a complex and multi-faceted one. It will require a multi-pronged approach to better manage the situation. For a start, I strongly believe that the number of homeless cases can be further reduced significantly through the enhancement of some of the HDB’s housing policies, which to some extent inadvertently contribute to the risk of this group of vulnerable people ending up homeless.

For example, at my Meet-the-People Session, I met a family of six who became homeless partly due to HDB’s 30-month debarment policy. Mr A, an owner of a 3-room HDB flat, is his family’s sole breadwinner who earns about $1500 a month. He has a wife and four young children to support. He was advised by HDB to sell his house to clear his housing arrears. After he sold his flat and cleared his arrears, he applied for a rental flat under the HDB’s Public Rental Scheme but was rejected due to the 30-month debarment policy.

Mr A had no choice but to rent a flat through the open market. After a while, he exhausted his savings and could no longer pay the monthly rent. As a result, he and his family had to camp by the beach. Fortunately for him, an NParks officer referred his case to the relevant agency and after a while, the family was located in a temporary shelter. According to Mr A, six months after residing in the shelter, his family was granted the flat he currently stays in.

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This Singaporean Woman Has Been Living At Changi Airport For EIGHT Years

Homelessness is a real problem in Singapore, and surprisingly enough, you'll see it in a place as polished as Changi Airport.

This woman in her 50s, who preferred to remain anonymous, has been living in Changi Airport for eight years. She is among more than 10 "regulars" at the airport. She was hit by the 2008 financial crisis, and had cash flow problems. She was desperate, she said, and so rented out her three-room flat in Tampines and "moved" to the airport.

At first, she was just going to stay for a few nights, but it became eight years. Now, she has a trolley full of clothes, toiletries, food and other daily necessities. She eats at the airport food court and finds living there quite convenient as there is a supermarket, showers, air-conditioning and free Wi-Fi.

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A void deck is home, a marble bench a bed

For nearly 2 years, home for Mr Lim Cheng Teck, 76, was the void deck of a block of 1-room flats in Bedok South. His bed was a marble bench.

One half of the bench held his essentials: a few bottles of talcum powder bottles (the empty ones doubling up as incense-sticks holders), food, utensils, lighters & a few other knick knacks.

He sat, had his meals & slept on the other half, using the elevated middle section of the bench as a pillow.

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Man who sleeps at Woodlands void deck daily referred to welfare organisations: Town Council

A young man who has been sleeping daily at the void deck of Block 892B at Woodlands Drive has been referred to welfare organisations, a town council spokesperson said.

On Nov 16, a resident wrote in to citizen journalism website Stomp expressing concern for the man's safety & health after observing that he has been sleeping at the block's void deck for several nights in a row.

Here is the Town Council's response in full: "We have brought the case up to the attention of Ms Serene Tan, Manager, Woodgrove Zone 5 Residents' Committee

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Our homeless sleeping in public places


Last Fri night as I was leaving the coffee shop after my sojourn, I suddenly noticed that there was a surge in the homeless sleeping on the benches at the concrete shade. It was about 1am. A quick count showed more than 10 persons sleeping there. Their ages ranging from early 40s to 70s.

Most of them carried a bag and used it as headrest. They didn’t look like foreign workers. They appeared to be locals. I believe this scenario is repeated all over our country. Just go to the Chinatown Buddha Tooth Relic temple vicinity, there is much more there but those are elderly folks living nearby.

I believe there are two types of homeless sleeping in public places. Those who have got a flat but choose to sleep in a public place vs those who are really homeless who have no choice but to sleep in a public place.

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Hope for resettled homeless through Project 4650

The problem of families found living in public parks and beaches peaked in 2009, at the height of the Asian financial crisis. A project to get the East Coast Park homeless resettled has garnered positive results. Project 4650, started in 2010, has helped about 230 families so far.

What is the percentage of the 230 families to the total number of homeless families?

Since "On a daily basis we usually identify about 5 to 10 at that time and what we saw were families with very young children and it was a concern to us" - does it mean that the number in just a year may be about 2,738 families (7.5 a day times 365 days)?

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Homeless in the City of Possibilities

The homeless from Sembawang Park were told to dismantle their tents and were issued summons. They were also ordered to leave the area immediately. After TOC suggested that they be given more time, the officers from MCYS promised to give them a further three days to leave the park – this despite some of the campers having valid camping permits. (You can read a more detailed account of what happened here.)

The campers had, on that following Monday, gone to the MCYS office to discuss the matter of alternative accommodation with the officers, as previously arranged. After the discussion, they returned to Sembawang Park to pack up their belongings. They were greeted with the presence of workmen at the camping area who apparently were there to seal off the site. Indeed, Nparks seem eager to have the homeless leave the area as soon as possible, given how swiftly it had arranged for the workers to be there. The day after the campers left, the camping area at the park was cordoned off for “maintenance”.

Over at Changi beach, the homeless were treated just as badly. After the minister of MCYS’s visit, the campers were harassed for days, sometimes two or three times a day by Nparks officers, the campers told us. It is believed that these officers included those from other Nparks branches, such as East Coast, who were roped in to help rid Changi beach of the campers and the homeless, apparently.

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A van called home

After divorcing his first wife 2 years ago, an operations executive has been living out of a van at East Coast Park.

The van belongs to the cleaning company that the man, who wanted to be known as Mr Ahmad, 50, works for.

Mr Ahmad's current wife, who wanted to be known as Madam Rose, 30, joined him in February, with his daughter and son, to live out of the van at Carpark F2.

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Homeless in Singapore?

Where do the homeless go? There seems to be a perception that people in homeless shelters normally don’t get evicted, I have come across many cases of eviction and notice of eviction from homeless shelters. Perpetual queue of homeless? As I understand it, homeless shelters are almost invariably always full, with new homeless people all the time. So, unless one is evicted or threatened with eviction, they wouldn’t know actually whether they can fend for themselves, as most people will not volunteer to leave a homeless shelter.

Interim Housing Scheme - Those in the Interim Housing Scheme also get evicted because they cannot pay their rental. How many homeless in shelters? By the way, how many homeless shelters are there in Singapore, how many people are housed in total, and who runs them? In this regard, I understand that homeless shelters do not have signboards or names, telephone numbers or web sites.

Homeless rising? I also understand that the last time it was reported in Parliament, the number of homeless picked up by the authorities, had increased by 50 per cent or something.

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Homeless in Singapore’s Island Paradise

You may recall that I wrote about the sad case of Rebecca Loh and the tragic consequences of our government’s callous policy of self- reliance at all costs. Recently I was saddened again by the plight of another victim of similar callousness though as yet still mercifully without the same tragic consequences.

I know of Madam L’s case because she had called our office to ask for help. Yesterday I met up with her along with the assistance of one of our Hokkien speaking members. Before this our means of communication had been restricted to Malay. (My generation of Singaporeans were taught in English but non-Chinese learnt Malay as a second language.)

I will tell her story as she told it although we are still working on her case and no doubt more details will emerge. I believe it is not atypical.

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'Sleepers' in Singapore

  • "There are no homeless, destitute or starving people [in Singapore]…Poverty has been eradicated." - Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's permanent representative to the UN
  • "You go down New York, Broadway. You will see the beggars, people of the streets...Where are the beggars in Singapore? Show me." - Lee Kuan Yew
  • "There are no homeless people in Singapore because they are called SLEEPERS Singapore is ingenious we have gotten rid of homelessness without spending a single cent" - Lucky Tan
Everytime I work late and pass by the bus interchange near my place, I notice the growing number of homeless at the bus interchange. Each pillar at the bus interchange now as a permanent resident (PR). You ever wonder why the homeless sleep next to that the tired people coming back from work don't step on them when they sleep. Since every pillar is now occupied, I wondered where a new homeless person would go. The Sunday Times has the answer.

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Homeless – the ‘invisible’ people in Singapore

“I have lived in several different countries in my life. However, living in Singapore is the closest thing to paradise that I have ever experienced”, exclaims an expatriate in a blog post and adds “I thought it was interesting that I did not see a single homeless person during my entire stay in the country. I am sure there are homeless people in Singapore”.

The expatriate is surely not alone in ‘not seeing a single homeless person here’. The homeless among us are ‘invisible’ to many Singaporeans as well. So where do they live.

The Ministry of Social & Family Development said in Parliament last year that they “regularly patrols beaches and public areas to identify and provide assistance to persons who may be homeless”. Yes, some homeless individuals and families live along our coastal shores.

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Out In The Cold: A documentary bringing light to the homeless

A group of ex-temasek polytechnic (TP) students did a film about the less known, less talked about, sometimes seen, and always leaving people wondering: The Homeless People.

Titled "Out In The Cold", it is a documentary bringing light to people and circumstances that sometimes can’t be help.

The ex-students from TP who had to do a final year project for their Diploma in Moving Images formed the team of four for the documentary. They are Tan Yi Wilfred, the director, Nur Shahirah A. Latif, the producer, Sing Valerie, the director of photography and Anisa Bte Abdul Latiff, the editor.

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A fresh look at homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue without a quick or one-size-fits-all solution. Some displaced people reject intervention by the authorities because they do not want to be compelled to continue living with families or co-tenants. These strained relationships cannot just be blamed on personal traits as they may be born out of deeper conflicts.

Volunteers have also found that a number of displaced people exhibit some form of mental or physical disability, & these people face challenges adapting to life in shelters.

Even the concept of a home for a displaced person may be different. For some, it is not about "owning" a place or having a roof over their heads for the night. It is about having a place where they feel safe, in control & surrounded by people they get along with.

read more

Raiding the homeless – in the middle of the night
Raiding the homeless – in the middle of the night

They have been camped out there for months, but no one from the government agencies seem to have known about them – perhaps until The Online Citizen’s report on 13 January

TOC had reported that some 15 homeless families were camped out in tents at Sembawang Park. Three days after TOC’s revelation, on 16 January, Saturday, at around 10pm, officers from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), and NParks, together with some 10 policemen, swooped down on the park.

When TOC arrived at the scene at about 10.50pm, there were two police cars and a pick-up van. Some of the homeless were seen dismantling their tents. When queried about why they were being asked to do so, the NParks officers said the campers had broken “rules and regulations”, even though most of them still had valid camping permits. The summons referred to Section 9(1)(a) of the Parks and Trees Regulation Act 2005 which makes it an offence to conduct a barbeque without a permit, among other things. The camping permit does not include permission to barbeque, apparently.

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Meet Singapore’s nomad families

For four years, the newly-weds lived on the beach. From 2003 to 2007, they lived off their catch from the sea, did odd jobs, and washed in public toilets.

At 16, Madam Siti (not her real name), a Primary 4 dropout, married Mr Osman (not his real name), 25, despite parental objections. They were ostracised by both their families.

They lived in a series of pitched tents at Changi, East Coast, then Sembawang beach. When Madam Siti gave birth, her sister and in-laws took them in for a few months before conflicts drove them out to the beach. This went on till last year.

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The Poor & Homeless in Singapore

One day, there was an article about Singaporeans queuing up and buying many masks at one go. When asked why they were buying so many, most said that they were buying them for their friends and family members, and that they did not know when the haze would end.

And, on another day, there was an article about a Singaporean who could not afford a mask, has to cycle to send her children to school every day and sell curry puff in the haze. She could not even afford to switch on the fan, for she wanted to save on the PUB bill.

And in case you're wondering, yes, both articles are in the same national newspaper, not some online news site. What is the first thought that comes to you?

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Other Side of The Singapore Story

A former political detainee who was held for almost two decades launched his memoir yesterday.

In the 406-page book, Dr Poh Soo Kai, former assistant secretary- general of Barisan Sosialis, recounts his personal and political history, and counters the official version of facts that led to his being detained twice, for 17 years in all.

The book, titled Living In A Time Of Deception, also recollects Dr Poh's younger days as a grandson of Chinese community pioneer Tan Kah Kee - his mother's father - and as an activist against the colonial authorities in his student days at the then University of Malaya in Singapore.

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Tent Village: Singapore’s nomad families
More than 10 families live in East Coast Park’s ‘Tent Village’

Chinese newspaper Zaobao reported that East Coast Park is now a “tent village” where not only more than a dozen people have set up camp, but is also headed by a 29-year-old “village headman”. Most campers were forced into this “temporary shelter” while they wait for their rental HDB flat.

Newspaper received readers informed that the area along the east coast there are many large tents, as a self-sufficiency of the “village.”

According to the newspaper, the  “Tent Village” is in a location which is hidden from most members of the public, not far from a construction site, but near public toilets, which is convenient for the campers.

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More than 900 displaced individuals, families identified between 2013-2015
Between 2013 & 2015, the Social and Family Development Ministry has helped 543 individuals & 374 families. Around 80 per cent had low income and weak social support

The Social & Family Development Ministry (MSF) has identified more than 900 displaced individuals and families between 2013 & 2015.

While East Coast Park is where many Singaporeans go to unwind after work, it is also a temporary home for a small group of people.

Some occupants have made homes out of the makeshift tents dotting the park. Some Channel NewsAsia spoke with said they are waiting to be allocated housing, like HDB rental flats, & have no place to stay.

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Helping Elderly Cardboard Collectors in Singapore
Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?
Hazards being a Cardboard Picker
Collecting Cardboards "form of exercise" & "protecting our environment"
When Cardboard Is Gold
Buskers, Tissue Paper Peddlers, & Street Walkers
Karung Guni: The Rag and Bone Men
'Tissue and Cardboard' Sellers
Plight Of The Tissue Peddlers
Singapore’s Elderly Poor
Golden Year For The Elderlies
Support for the Needy and Elderly
Elderly in Singapore need S$1,379 a month
1,000 street homeless found in Singapore
The Surprising Truth About The Homeless In Singapore
The Poor & Homeless in Singapore
Tent Village: Singapore’s nomad families