It is the duty of the government and relevant agencies to accommodate and see to the wellbeing of the homeless and the poor, says Barathi Selvam.
If a single person does not have food,
Then, we will destroy this world.
– Mahakavi Bharathiyar (translated)
Walk into the heart of Penang soon after the sun sets, and you’ll be greeted by numerous pubs, cafes, fast food outlets and high-rise buildings, along with hundreds of poor homeless souls, who are reduced to scavenging for food.
Despite the vibrant nightlife all around, the dark shades at the periphery are often ignored; whether by the authorities, the ruling class or most of the public.
It is quite comfortable for many to believe that fate plays a huge role in determining the ‘career’ path of the homeless, who are cruelly labelled by some as lazy social parasites, drug addicts, troublemakers, and possible criminals.
Is fate to be blamed for this dreadful phenomenon which has penetrated deep down in our daily lives?
A year ago, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor announced a ban on soup kitchens in a section of KL as they were supposedly tarnishing the city’s image. It triggered an uproar from Malaysians, especially netizens, who criticised and condemned the now infamous statement.
Various groups of volunteers commendably spend their time and their own resources to provide foods and toiletries to the homeless. They have been doing this for years.
But many fail to notice that providing meals occasionally will not solve the root cause of homelessness. Thinking beyond their daily needs is more important than anything else.
We have witnessed Ops Qaseh, initiated by Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rohani Abdul Karim, who wanted to turn KL into a city with‘zero’ vagrants and beggars.
The Destitute Persons Act 1977 was used to arrest any homeless people found on the streets and place them in welfare homes under the social welfare department. Those under the care of the department can only move out if they obtain a job that allows them to survive on their own.
But the implementation remains unclear because the numbers of homeless are rising. People sleep all over the city with cardboard as mattresses and garbage bags as pillows.
There are times where these homeless folk are chased away for a specific period, for instance, when there is an official event or visitor, thus obscuring the reality.
A survey by Food Not Bombs, an NGO who are well known for providing food to the homeless, found that poverty and social exclusion play a vital role in perpetuating homelessness.
Some 435,000 Malaysians are presently unemployed, competing with tens of thousands of immigrant workers who are brought in as part of a low-wage policy. There are now plans to import another 10,000 foreign workers into Malaysia – which could make the situation worse.
According to FNB, some of the homeless are actually working but their wages are not enough to rent a room or a house; so they have no choice but to live on the streets.
As the cost of living rises drastically, compounded by the goods and services tax, the state of the nation’s minimum wage is quite sickening and questionable. The minimum wage is RM900 for Peninsular Malaysia and RM800 for Sabah and Sarawak – below what is needed to live with dignity.
The income disparity between the rich and the poor is widening both in the private and the public sector, claim academics from Universiti Malaya who collaborated with Khazanah Research Institute in a paper on income disparity among Malaysians in 2014.
While the Canadians provide camps for the homeless as shelter during scorching or rainy days, Malaysian officials are much more sympathetic by letting them sleep anywhere as long as they are not disrupting anyone.
It is the duty of the government and relevant agencies to accommodate and see to the wellbeing of the homeless and the poor. What if, one day, a group of homeless people decide to occupy any office responsible for the wellbeing of the marginalised communities?
Some might think that the homeless can’t be that brilliant or courageous, but don’t be surprised to find many homeless who are keenly aware of politics; there are even some who talk about Gramsci.
It is not money or food they need most; what they need is change and fair and equal treatment.
Barathi Selvam, an undergraduate student majoring in journalism at a local university, is just a normal teenager enraged with the social injustices he sees around him. He hopes to use writing as a medium to advocate for anyone who is discriminated and oppressed and to empower the marginalised.
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