Based on the single night count that took place in July 2019, there were a total of 921 homeless people in Singapore. Homelessness was geographically widespread on count night, with observations recorded in 23 of the 24 districts covered. There was significant variation aross districts.
A large homeless population resides in the City district (comprising Downtown Core, Marina East, Marina South, Straits View and Outram), Bedok and Jurong West. These are locations in Singapore with a traditionally older resident population.
The most common location where the homeless sleep at was void decks (31.9%), followed by commercial buildings (28.6%)). This could be because the physical environment of these locations are more likely exposed (i.e in full view of passers-by) and well-lit at night, which bodes well for the safety of these homeless
Amongst the 921 homeless people found in the single night count, only 191 were awake and 88 of them were interviewed.
The statistics shown from now on are only reflective of these 88 people. They are mostly Singaporean citizens (88%), male (92%), older and in work. Persistent street homelessness combined with constant instability characterises their housing insecurity. What are reasons for homelessness?
The first is insecure work and poverty. While 60% of the homeless people interviewed work (with some holding full-time jobs), they have irregular work and low wages, resulting in inability to afford accommodation. Common occupations cited included cleaning, odd jobs, security and retail, which are among the lowest-paying occupations in Singapore. Low-wage work can also mean working during odd hours, when public transport is not available and commuting by other means is too expensive, so some opt to sleep near their workplace instead.
The second cause is the loss of social resources or the breakdown of family support. The study found that nearly 40% of the interviewees had housing in their names, usually public rental housing or purchased flats. However, because of family conflicts, they no longer live in their homes.
Inadequate housing standards within the public rental sector make up the third cause. Public rental flats are small and have no separate bedrooms, but must be shared by two single people (who are usually strangers). The flats are affordable, but the lack of privacy and difficulties in getting along with co-tenants are seen as deal breakers for 24% of the people interviwed.
Despite recent measures to increase income supplements for workers and mandate employers to pay progressive wages in occupations such as cleaning and security, low wages remain a key contributing factor to the inability to access stable housing. Policy interventions in the problem of low wages and insecure work must be part of any comprehensive and long-term response to homelessness.
Considering current patterns of homelessness and homeless people’s needs in contemporary Singapore, the Destitute Persons Act seems outdated. It targets a minority of the homeless population. The definition of destitution in the act includes elements such as begging in a public place and having no means of subsistence which do not accurately describe most of the people sleeping in public spaces. It can prevent people from getting the help they need. It also creates serious ethical challenges for research and inter-agency collaboration. A revision of this act to bring it up to date, or clarification of its application to homelessness is useful.
There needs to be community ownership of this complex social challenge and encourage people to find out more about homelessness, contribute what they can, speak up about their concerns, and participate in policymaking. It will help to challenge stereotypes about homeless people and create a safer environment for them. Achieving housing security for this vulnerable population will require such ownership, alongside improvements to economic conditions, policies, and services.
Outreach services are critical for connecting homeless people to housing support. Voluntary efforts in this area have grown in the last few years. There is a need to expand outreach services to new sites. Whether this should be done by encouraging and supporting more voluntary groups, introducing publicly funded services, or extending the mandate of existing community-based organisations like Family Service Centres and Social Service Offices is a matter that deserves careful consideration and consultation. Feedback should be sought from the voluntary outreach groups that have been on the front line of this work in recent years.
Shelter services that impose a short, arbitrary duration of stay are unlikely to be adequate or well-received. The design and funding of services must be commensurate with the deep-seated problems related to social relationships, work, and health that this population faces. In addition, considering the poor physical environment that some homeless people are currently living in, overnight shelters with a low entry bar and immediate availability may provide an important lifeline and an opportunity to regain stability.
The effectiveness and sustainability of shelter services depends on the availability of more stable and permanent options in the housing landscape into which shelter residents may graduate. The most obvious is the HDB’s public rental housing scheme. However, the eligibility criteria are strict, space is inadequate, and conflict between co-tenants is well-documented. Removing the joint tenancy requirement as an immediate step will not only improve this exit path from homelessness, but will also help to realise basic standards of privacy for the poorest residents in the public housing sector.