Down and Out in KL: The Homeless and the Street People

The homeless and the people living on the streets, and many off them: much as the thought might create discomfort and uneasiness among many of us, we have to face it – they exist. And here in Malaysia, in KL too; in the land of plenty.

We would catch glimpses of them here and there as we go about our daily lives and they are the stereotypes in our minds when we come across the terms of `homeless’ and `street people’: dirty, unkempt and smelly; begging, sitting on pavements with a vacant look in their eyes, walking with a sack and on the lookout for discarded aluminium cans. Occasionally, we might come across one sleeping on the pavement; his pillow being a dirty bag that contains all his worldly possessions. And we’d wonder how it was that they had gotten there.

Taken from a Google search. Don't know who owns this image, sorry.

“Addicts, drunkards, gamblers and former prostitutes who had lost everything through their own misdeeds”, many of us might conclude, and dismissing further thoughts of them. And we would be right too, for some of them are or were and that’s how they had eventually gotten there. But many aren’t… and yet they too are there on the streets! How could this be?!

There are a lot of misconceptions about them, and a general lack of interest among us to know more; much less to do something about. And that included me. Previously, like many people, I had thought that “there are some who are homeless: beggars, addicts, drunkards, Myanmar… the usual suspects.”

If I had to make a guess as to how many there were in the centre of KL, I would have ventured “maybe something like 30 or 40.” An outing at night around the heart of KL with an organisation called REACH OUT earlier this year (two days before I married) showed that I was way, way off with this estimate. And there were many women and children among them too… Malaysians.

Reach Out organises an activity called “street feeding” on Saturday night, usually from around 11PM to 2AM. Volunteers would gather at Jalan Pudu and from there would drive around various places to distribute freshly cooked food packed in styrofoam boxes and also bottled water to the street people. At some locations, these people would be waiting to collect the food. The volunteers would also  leave the food packets beside those sleeping on pavements along the way. Many weren’t visible from the road: only by walking and exploring the various nooks and crannies would you find them. And these volunteers were dedicated enough to do so.

That outing was an eye-opener. I was disturbed by what I saw: there were so many of the homeless in Malaysia. And those whom I did see that night were most likely only a fraction of the total, whatever that might be! And something inside kept reminding me: if not for the Grace of God, I too would easily have been one of them… easily.

I tried to, but it’s very hard to imagine their lives and what they have to put up with. The only experience I had that came closest was in 1999, when I had spent a few nights sleeping under the porch of “show house” at Tampoi Indah in Johor Baru. That was with the permission and invitation of the guard whom I had befriended a few hours earlier (someone from Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan. There’s an unwritten code of conduct that says: when outside the state, the Kelantanese is obliged to help each other).

But I knew it would be temporary; just until I obtained a rented room at Taman Perling nearby (Again it was through a Kelantanese’s help). Even then I could remember the discomfort and inconveniences – the hard floor, the mosquitoes… and the toilet was a guard post at the entrance to a few blocks of apartments 200 metres away (the guards there were… you guessed it – from Kelantan). But those people on the streets – what they have to put up with are a few magnitudes worse than those few nights in Johor Baru.

It might be tempting – and very easy – for us to conclude that “they are used to it”. Used to living on the street, eating and sleeping there?? I don’t think so… unless if they had been born and brought up from there. And even if that were so, is it something that they’d choose if given the choice?

What is it like, to see other people – US – passing by (and with us averting eye contact; not wanting to know that there are other humans living such wretched lives)… seeing others seemingly so happy and “having everything”; especially the fact that our presence there is only temporary, for we all have some place to go back to to eat, relax and sleep? And where will they go to?

What is it like to not have a place where you can ease yourself, to wash your clothes, to have a refreshing bath when you feel like it?…and especially when you NEED to? “There are restaurants, mosques, suraus…”, we might helpfully suggest. Yes, there are. Trouble is, you aren’t allowed to at many of these places – not when you’re dirty, unkept and smelly. Ironically, that’s exactly when you really need access to these facilities! You have to be clean and tidy first before you can; forever dooming these unfortunates from being so.

And what is it like, not being able to go down to the kitchen to have a quick bite when you’re hungry, to have a cold drink when you’re thirsty? “You can easily have these from the many restaurants and 7-Elevens. Surely there are many around the centre of KL?!” Yes, there are many of these outlets in each and every direction. The main problem is, you need something called “money” to get them; and the homeless can’t simply go to the nearest ATM to withdraw some.

“Why don’t they get a job? That should solve everything!…able to rent a room, buy food, pay for public transport, get new clothes. And if they are thrifty, they’ll be able to get a motorcycle too soon enough!” YES, that’s so very right! But there’s one problem: potential employers are reluctant to take people who don’t have an address; a place to stay. And therein is another rut and a vicious cycle: to be able to pay rent, you need a job. But to get that, you need a place to stay first. And guess how many landlords there are, who are willing to give someone a room without paying rent upfront and possibly a deposit also?

So what are we going to do about it? One option is to throw up our hands, shrug and lament: “It’s something too big… not something that I can help with. I have my own problems – the house’s payments, the car, groceries, children’s education…” and pointing to others by way of washing it off our hands: “The government, the authorities – it’s their responsibility.”

But we know we must do something; that we can do something. BUT WHAT? I don’t really know myself – however, besides REACH OUT I do know of another organisation that was formed recently to try and do something about it: Program Agihan Makanan Kpd Gelandangan @ Masjid Jamek KL. The Facebook page is here and you can learn more about the people involved and the activities planned.

Briefly, the group meets at Masjid Jamek from 9.30 PM every Thursday night – which is tonight. Instead of just handing out food, the volunteers also organise other activities for the street people, including a short religious ceramah (by the way, despite it being held in the vicinity of the mosque, everyone is welcomed to attend).

Sceptics and armchair critics might doubt the effectiveness of the program, like “How would it help to solve the homelessness problem? Doing the activities mentioned would hardly make a dent.” To this I say: What do you suggest? And, more importantly, when are YOU going TO DO IT?

There might be much better ideas, no doubt. But let’s talk about NOW. Yes, it might “look small” but you have to start somewhere. And this group at Masjid Jamek has started… Many would be at the Shah Alam Stadium tonight or glued to the television set, watching the Malaysia-Singapore football match. But that’s okay – there are those other Thursday nights ahead, if you’d like to see what’s going on and what you might be able to do to help. In the meantime, it would be great if you folks could just have a look at the Facebook page and see what’s going on. Having more people there would help to encourage the organisers, at the very least.