Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Letter to the Editor: Helping the Less Privileged Empowers and Uplifts, Does Not Create Dependency

I am angered and appalled by the condescension expressed by Jaline Wellington in her letter “Food for thought over the hungry in Malaysia” (The Star, 21 Oct 2017).
The fact that she had only accompanied a homeless outreach group on one of their sessions does not make her an authority on the credibility of the “apparently homeless-foodless” individuals or whether “they look truly malnourished or hungry”. It is ridiculous and patronising of her to assume that volunteers are capable of “encouraging these people to become sophisticated beggars” just by giving out food. Nobody wants to sleep rough and in unsafe and unhygienic conditions just to accept a free packet of food and worn clothes, if they had an option. Poverty isn't a choice. NGOs and the food we give out are not the reason people sleep on the streets.
I have been a volunteer with at least 5 different homeless outreach organisations for the past 11 years, and I uphold that these organisations and their volunteers are neither naïve nor foolish, nor are our street clients lazy, greedy, entitled or freeloading. Almost all these organisations offer basic counselling services, employment counselling and referrals, assistance to families and vulnerable individuals, legal advice and assistance, First Aid services and medical assistance, and opportunities for the homeless to find better jobs and re-enter mainstream society.
Most of the homeless individuals in Malaysia are not unemployed, but 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, clinical depression or other medical issues. Some are victims of crime, sexual abuse or domestic violence. Some were cheated of their wages by employers, or had entered into business partnerships which failed. Some are senior citizens abandoned by their families and are unable to find a welfare home that is able to accept them. But many are just ordinary citizens struggling to make ends meet and send money home to their families in other towns and villages.
The reason for the rising number of homeless people in the streets of Kuala Lumpur is the same as everywhere else in the world – urban migration for better economic opportunities, wage stagnation and rising costs of living. Rising rent, utility costs and fuel costs mean that low-income individuals who were previously able to rent rooms in the city are now no longer able to afford the same. While affordable housing is available outside of city limits, the cost of private vehicle ownership and the lack of a reliable public transport system mean that these individuals have no means of travelling to and from work. As a result, many opt to sleep in public areas not far from their workplaces.
Different homeless outreach organisations have different operating procedures. Some, like the Pit Stop Community Café, have a permanent place to serve their street clients from. Some, like Dapur Jalanan, use permanent tableware to cut down on packaging and waste. Some, like Yellow House KL, provide job training and job matching services and offer haircuts and hairwash services to help street clients stay healthy and clean and show up neatly for job interviews. Some, like Kedai Jalanan UM, reduce waste and reuse resources by redirecting used clothes and other donated items to the homeless and urban poor. Some, like Reach Out Malaysia and Kechara Soup Kitchen, distribute packaged food to street clients in different parts of the city because some of the said street clients may be asleep, still at work, unable to walk or travel to soup kitchens for their meals, or are only able to eat at a later time, and find packed food to be more convenient, portable and hygienic. Some, like Food Aid Foundation, collect surplus food from markets and factories and redirect them to organisations, welfare homes and the less privileged to reduce food waste. Some, like Buku Jalanan Chow Kit, provide free tuition to impoverished and street children. All these organisations assist in meeting the different needs of different beneficiaries. The reason why some of the street clients are seen to be discarding food is that some of the food given is stale or has gone bad, or non-halal food is given out to Muslim street clients even when they decline the same. This is the reason why individuals should work together with established organisations to find out the needs of the intended beneficiaries, and should refrain from giving anything that they would not themselves eat.
The writer also displayed her arrogance and ignorance in assuming that homeless outreach volunteers and our street clients do not play our part in cleaning up public places. Most of the organisations include cleaning up in their procedures and encourage our street clients to assist us in post-meal clean-ups. Some of our street clients rescue and care for stray animals, and volunteers assist them in getting the animals neutered.
The only insinuation made by the writer that I agree with is that Malaysians are a generous lot. This is because rational, compassionate people are aggrieved by the suffering of others. However, providing food and material assistance is only the initial step towards alleviating poverty and hardship. I am reminded of the words of Mary Wollstonecraft: “It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world”. Many groups and individuals are working towards improving educational and employment opportunities and providing medical assistance, legal advice and counselling services to improve the quality of life of the less privileged and help to change the status quo. It is good to remember that for every mean-spirited critic out there, there are at least 20 other Malaysians willing to put themselves out of their comfort zone to assist, encourage and uplift others.