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Community must tackle homelessness, say panellists

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Expert panel says individuals, businesses, organisations can help rough sleepers

The community as a whole needs to be involved to help rough sleepers stay off the streets, panellists noted in a discussion about homelessness yesterday.

They said that apart from volunteer groups, and government and social service agencies in the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (Peers) network launched last year, individuals, businesses and organisations are encouraged to share their resources.

Mr Lee Kim Hua, senior director of the Peers office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, said those who had offered help to displaced Malaysian workers affected by their country's lockdown could also help the 1,000 or so homeless people here find shelter.

The two groups are distinct, as the Malaysian workers will have a home to return to when the border restrictions are lifted, he added.

Mr Lee called on psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors to help the homeless rebuild relationships and improve their family situations.

He also urged companies, besides donating money, to open their premises to house 10 or 20 homeless people at night, and encourage their employees to volunteer.

Mr Lee was a panellist in the discussion organised by The Straits Times in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM).

It was moderated by SKM general secretary William Wan.

The other panellists were Homeless Hearts of Singapore co-founder Abraham Yeo, postdoctoral research fellow Harry Tan from the department of sociology at the National University of Singapore, and New Hope Community Services chief executive Andrew Khoo.

While the panellists acknowledged that there is no single reason, Pastor Khoo, who has been helping the homeless for more than 15 years, said: "Generally, people who are homeless are those who are without family support."

The panellists also debunked common stereotypes of the homeless as lazy or unmotivated, or that they had chosen to be on the streets.

Dr Tan said that many homeless people may say they choose to sleep rough because it is closer to where they work, or because of conflict at home.

However, these may not really be choices, but instead reflect the limitations they face.

"It shows a lack of available options to (these) people that they have to sleep outside," he said.

A whole-of-community approach to tackling homelessness is vital, said Mr Yeo, who emphasised the importance of building a relationship with homeless people.