Two weeks ago, I posted this status update on my Facebook account in response to the growing number of laws against vagrancy and volunteers providing food and other assistance to the homeless:
"Instead of waging war against the homeless, laws and society should wage war against poverty. You can't make it illegal for people to be homeless unless there are systems in place to make it virtually impossible to be homeless. Homelessness isn't a choice. No child dreams of becoming the man sleeping on the park bench or the bag lady when they grow up. Somewhere along the way, something went wrong. Our job is to find out what went wrong and find solutions. We cannot punish people just for their poverty and suffering. We have to help, not hinder."
A friend then asked me in a rather condescending manner what "solutions" I would propose. I knew she was implying that the problem of homelessness is one without solutions, that "helping" the homeless would result in more homelessness and dependency.
I responded with the following proposed solutions:
"#1 ERADICATE CORRUPTION. Implement a realistic livable minimum wage. Protect workers' rights. Amend and repeal bankruptcy and foreclosure laws. Allocate a percentage of land and housing for the poor and disadvantaged, and ENSURE that they are reserved for low-income citizens! (Right now most are purchased by rich Datuks and rented out by their agents to tenants) Provide state-funded high quality education and skills training. Mental health treatment and assistance to the mentally ill and substance addicted. Hostels and job training for ex-convicts and former drug users. Legal assistance and safe houses for women who are victims of trafficking and entrapment into the sex trade, or who are victims of domestic violence. Investigations into cases of land confiscation, water pollution and other forms of destruction of rural areas which lead to rural communities not being able to survive or be self-sufficient anymore, causing them to move to cities and end up as squatter citizens."
Most Malaysians, including my friend above, buy into the myths that the homeless "choose" to be homeless, that they are lazy and unwilling to work, and that most of them are criminals, alcoholics or drug users. Most Malaysians who have never done street outreach and have never talked to homeless persons are not aware that many of the homeless in Malaysia are working at low-paying jobs. Some have mental illness or are of subaverage intelligence and therefore unemployable. Some lost their jobs due to the deteriorating economy, personal problems, mental illness or other medical issues. Some are victims of crime, sexual abuse or domestic violence, but many are just ordinary folk trying to survive in this big, harsh world.
It was in August this year that Aravind and I started volunteering with Reach Out Malaysia, a volunteer-run community action group with the mission of implementing programmes to deliver relief from hunger, pain, or abuse; of feeding, sheltering and rehabilitating the homeless and urban/rural poor; of raising awareness on the causes of such and in the long term, to reduce the flow of poverty by providing a place of training and assistance and source employment opportunities to help make the poor employable and for them to re-enter society.
As stated in their Mission Statement, Reach Out is strictly non-religious and apolitical and does not discriminate in terms of race, gender, religion or culture. Its volunteers consist of dedicated people of all faiths, races and professional/academic backgrounds. ReachOut offers food, drinks, used clothing, and basic medical first aid to those in need in Kuala Lumpur and other cities and towns.
On our Food Runs with them, we help to purchase, prepare, pack, transport or deliver food and basic necessities. We meet our Run Leaders at designated meeting points and move in groups to locations where our homeless friends await our arrival around midnight (many have day jobs and others come out only at night to avoid encounters with the police and authorities). We try to meet our street clients' request for food, First Aid treatment, job referrals, clothes and other assistance. Many have cats and dogs as companions so we bring them pet food and make arrangements for neutering. Our Run Leaders are committed and caring individuals who still have their sense of humour intact despite the exasperation, sorrow and frustration they often experience. Aravind and I have utmost respect for them and just try to do the best we can to help, as often as we can.
My cell phone camera photos from some of the ReachOut Malaysia volunteer sessions and food runs that Aravind and I had participated in:
11 Aug 2013: Packing Aidilfitri cookies, fruits and treats for our food run with our friends Leena, June and Looi Fang.
11 Aug 2013: Looi Fang and Leena, who initiated the idea of packing festive goodies for our street clients so they would get to celebrate Aidilfitri too.
11 Aug 2013: Each street client would receive a little box of assorted cookies...
... placed in a bag together with an apple, an orange, Kit Kat bars, snack cakes, a carton of Milo and a packet of crackers.
Aravind taking his duty of packing cookies very seriously!
11 Aug 2013: Getting ready to load the goodies into the car.
Meeting point for the volunteers in front of the Masjid Jamek LRT station at 11.30pm. Run Leader Suresh briefed us on our objectives and code of conduct.
Simon and other ReachOut volunteers rendering First Aid treatment for one of our street clients. I'm going to start carrying an Animal First Aid Kit on our street rounds soon for our feline and canine street clients.
31 Aug 2013: Buying toothbrushes, cat food and mosquito coils for our street clients on a rainy National Day.
31 Aug 2013: Unloading the food and doing a headcount outside Lost City.
31 Aug 2013: One of our street clients fell and split his chin on a rainy night, so our volunteers Melvin and Simon helped to disinfect and stitch up his wounds.
One of the cats we encountered during the Food Run. Kitty got some kibbles, too.
15 Sept 2013: ReachOut Malaysia food run as usual tonight, in good weather or bad. Here are some of our street clients outside the Puduraya bus terminal.
15 Sept 2013: Our street clients on the Bangkok Bank sidewalk enjoying a hot meal, which includes yummy marble cake contributed by Leena's friend.
Volunteers keeping track of the number of bags of food we have and getting ready to distribute the food at the sidewalk outside Bangkok Bank.
Food and volunteers all ready for the Deepavali night ReachOut Malaysia food run. Missing our senior volunteers / Run leaders Suresh, Jennifer and Simon tonight. But grateful for Pete's leadership as usual.
2 Nov 2013: The ReachOut van is here! Time to load all 200 hot meal packs and get moving before the rain gets any heavier. Our street friends await!
Want to learn more? Then please click on the links below:
ReachOut Malaysia official blog: http://reachoutmy.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/reach-out-malaysia/
ReachOut Malaysia Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ReachOutMalaysia/info
HopeBox Malaysia Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/#!/hopeboxmalaysia?fref=ts