Hidden in plain sight: Tackling homelessness in ‘crazy rich’ Singapore

A homeless man reads a newspaper on the ground in Central SingaporePhoto: Michael Coghlan

While not easily visible, between 921 and 1,050 people in Singapore sleep on the streets every night. Why is the city-state leaving these vulnerable citizens behind?

By Maegan Liew

In November 2019, a landmark study on Singapore’s homeless population was released. The nationwide street count, led by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, unveiled for the first time the scale of homelessness within the country.

Singapore may have been the rapacious backdrop for the Hollywood hit film Crazy Rich Asians, but there are up to 1,000 homeless citizens sleeping rough in the city-state every night.

Homelessness is not readily visible  

Singapore boasts one of the highest rates of homeownership in the world. In 2018, the figure stood at 91%. The phenomenon of homelessness in the island nation is not typically observable – unless one deliberately goes in search of those eking out a life on the streets.

That was what a team of nearly 500 volunteer fieldworkers did over a period of three months to produce Homeless in Singapore: Results from A Nationwide Street Count. Starting work after 11.30 pm, the fieldworkers scoured over 12,000 blocks of housing flats as well as other public and commercial spaces to record the number of rough sleepers. They interviewed 88 of those they found sleeping on the streets.  

Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe told ASEAN Today: “Research plays an important role by bringing social issues into the open and providing an evidence base for the planning of services and policies. As the economy and society change, we must continue to have research to update and deepen our understanding of homelessness.”

A homeless man uses a newspaper as a pillow as he sleeps on the street in Singapore
Photo: Hans Wakataitea

Singapore’s homeless population are easily overlooked. They rarely fit stereotypical profiles of the destitute and displaced. Many of the homeless in the city-state have “found ways to keep their appearance”, with nearly 30% of the rough sleepers were identified by fieldworkers as ‘presentable’ and most do not carry many possessions with them.

Many are employed and working but homeless

The majority of the homeless in Singapore, nearly 60%, hold down jobs. The nature of their employment often drove them to the streets.

Most of the homeless are working in low-wage and irregular jobs, with many working in the cleaning, security, and retail industries. The median wage of an employed homeless worker stands at S$1,400 (US$1,036) a month. The national median wage is $3,467 (US$2,564) in Singapore. Paying for rent or a mortgage with an income that is less than half that of the national median was impossible for many of the homeless interviewed.

Segments of the population with lower skills and education levels are therefore more vulnerable to homelessness stemming from unstable and low-paying work. Some 76% of Singapore’s homeless population have a secondary school education or below. 

Moreover, with the onset of an ageing population, insecure and low-paying work is particularly worrying as a pathway to homelessness. “In Singapore, homelessness is related to in-work poverty in old age. We found that homeless people here tend to be older because their homelessness is related to insecure work and low wages, which are most common among older workers,” Professor Ng told ASEAN Today. The average age of the homeless interviewed was 54, and more than half were judged by fieldworkers to be above the age of 50.

Homelessness as a percentage of the population by country

Homelessness in the lion city is typically not a temporary condition. The study revealed that the majority of those who find themselves homeless in Singapore will likely remain so for years. Of those interviewed, half have been sleeping rough for between one and five years. Another third have been homeless for a period of six years or longer.

Amongst those interviewed, 40% of the group had previously sought help but were still unable to escape their predicament. Social Service Offices, which disburse financial aid, and Members of Parliament (MPs) were the most likely parties for homeless to turn to for help.

Help has not been forthcoming. While up to 1,000 Singaporeans lay their heads on the streets every night, only around 290 people were recipients of assistance from the MSF.

Current schemes need to be beefed up to address homelessness

The chronic nature of homelessness means that the mitigating solutions have to be multifaceted in targeting problem factors. “Homelessness needs to be addressed through multiple strategies. Services like outreach and befriending are important because they provide relief and support to homeless people. They can also help to connect homeless people to resources like financial assistance and overnight shelters. These services can be expanded,” Prof Ng elaborates.

Overnight shelters like Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)-funded Crisis Shelters and Transitional Shelters provide temporary accommodation and relief to the homeless. MSF also launched the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) Network in July 2019, bringing together 26 agencies including religious institutions in helping the homeless in Singapore.

An elderly man eating at a table in Central Singapore
More than half of Singapore’s homeless population are above the age of 50.
Photo Credit: Joan Campderros-i-Canas

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) will be a key player in devising longer-term solutions to homelessness. Its public rental housing scheme is designed to help those most in need but strict eligibility criteria, like the joint tenancy requirement for singles to co-rent a one-room flat, have blunted the thrust.

15% of the rough sleepers interviewed by fieldworkers had HDB rental flats in their names but the challenges that come with sharing an apartment with strangers and conflicts with co-tenants have deterred them from going home for the night.

Prof Ng elaborates: “Inadequate conditions in public rental housing can both add to homelessness and prevent exit from it. The joint tenancy requirement for singles needs to be urgently removed.”

At the same time, more needs to be done to ensure that an inclusive social safety net is in place to prevent Singaporeans from descending into homelessness in the first place.

“We need to restrict the pathways into homelessness and improve the exit routes into stable and secure housing,” Prof Ng informed ASEAN Today. But this will only come by looking at the problem as a multi-dimensional issue.

“To prevent homelessness, we must make work conditions more secure and protect wages at the bottom and strengthen alternative provisions of income security in old age for those who are unable to work,” Ng concluded.