Written by: Chong Wei Jie
The assessment of the homeless person comes under Singapore’s Destitute Persons Act (Cap 78, 2013 Rev Ed). This article examines the definition of “destitute” in Singapore; the implications of this Act on the homeless person and the importance of redefining homelessness to render solutions to chronic homelessness.
Singapore has often been lauded as the model country for homeownership rates and is the top few countries with 90.4% homeownership as of 2019 . This achievement is largely credited to the successes of the public housing scheme under the Housing Development Board (“HDB”) in providing affordable housing to the masses.
The plight of the homeless in Singapore has been brought to light by a landmark study titled “Homeless In Singapore: Results From A Nationwide Street Count” published in 2019 under the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (“LKYSPP”). The study revealed the cause of homelessness is due to structural and social issues that affects mostly elderly men. It estimated a figure of between 921 and 1,050 people living on the streets. Of the 88 persons who were willing to be interviewed, main reasons cited were unemployment, irregular work or low wages (47%), followed by family conflict or break-up (37%). Interestingly, just under 40% of those interviewed stated they had housing in their name: either HDB Public Rental Flats (15%), purchased HDB flats (11%), a hostel place or overseas residence. The majority of them were men; almost 60% of them were in their 50s and 60s; another 11% were in their 70s. The simple stereotypes of the homeless being lazy and not wanting to work were unfounded; 60% were working and the other 40% of those not in work were looking for work.
As observed, while some of the homeless do not have homes, others do but could not return home due to social issues. The Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”) adopts a “community-based” approach to help the homeless, with legislation as the last resort.
The statutory response
There is no legal definition for “homeless” or “homelessness” in Singapore. The only legislation that provides some relief for the homeless is the Destitute Persons Act.
Under s.2 of the Act, a “destitute person” is:
(a) any person found begging in a public place in such a way as to cause or be likely to cause annoyance to persons frequenting the place or otherwise to create a nuisance; or
(b) any idle person found in a public place, whether or not he is begging, who has no visible means of subsistence or place of residence or is unable to give a satisfactory account of himself.
Under s.3, the authorities have the power to require a destitute person to reside in a welfare home. If the Director-General has reasonable cause to believe a person delivered into custody “has no visible means of subsistence”, the Director-General may temporarily admit the person into a welfare home until an inquiry has been held within 30 days. After an inquiry is completed and the person is deemed a destitute person under the Act, the Director-General “may by warrant under his hand require that person to reside in a welfare home.”
In Singapore, admission of the destitute to welfare homes is a last resort measure “after exhausting other avenues such as community-based care options”.  Roughly half of an approximate 1900 residents in welfare homes have been admitted involuntarily. According to a MSF spokesperson, welfare home residents “have more complex risks and needs” therefore making it more challenging for discharge into the community. They, a small proportion of rough sleepers, are viewed to “have no family support and are unable to care for themselves”, and are required to follow fixed schedules and various rules and regulations for care and rehabilitation in the home. They cannot leave the home without permission and are kept until long-term housing arrangements are found. While the welfare homes believe that rules are necessary to prepare the residents to return to society, some residents are against the rigid regime and have left without permission and not returning.
While there is legislative support for the destitute, there is none governing the “community-based” solutions for the homeless who are not destitute under the MSF’s definition.
Criticisms of the Destitute Persons Act
The first issue is the lack of legislative support to intervene and help a homeless person who would have been a destitute, if not for the fact that he had his own place of residence. As pointed out by Member of Parliament Murali Pillai, “there is no ability to require a rough sleeper who has a residence to take shelter in a welfare home for the sake of his health and welfare." Mr Murali cited anecdotal evidence where he had failed to convince a rough sleeper who faced family and mental health issues to return to his home, or to enter a shelter. Mr Murali further mentioned how the rough sleeper had become visibly frailer and subsequently went missing.
The study conducted by the LKYSPP highlighted a high proportion of homeless persons having residence under their names but have chosen not to return home due to family conflicts or mental health issues. The requirement of not having a place of residence to qualify as a destitute under s.2(b) of the Act, misplaces a large group of rough sleepers, leaving them unprotected. Mr Murali suggested that the place of residence requirement criterion be abolished. He mentioned that powers granted under the Act must be utilised in consideration of the health and welfare of the rough sleeper. He believed that under institutionalised care, there is a better opportunity to address the underlying issues leading to one not returning to his residence.
Secondly, the homeless may be involuntarily admitted to a welfare home and institutionalised under s.3 of the Destitute Persons Act. Tan, H in submissions for his doctoral thesis, had observed that some rough sleepers were fearful of being rounded up by MSF officers and sent to welfare homes against their will. These rough sleepers chose to either avoid or deceive the welfare officers into thinking they did not require help. The LKYSPP study corroborates Tan’s observations, adding that even those who are not deemed destitute feel anxiety and cast suspicions on public agencies and outreach workers. They avoided them for fear of being involuntarily admitted into welfare homes. It appears that their fear might be unfounded, depending on how they perceive the Act to be interpreted on them.
The purpose of the Destitute Persons Act as mentioned by the Minister of Social and Family Development is “exercised only as the last resort in instances where the individual's safety has been assessed to be at risk, or the individual lacks mental capacity to make informed decisions for his welfare”.  The law as it stands, does not accurately reflect this, and leaves an avenue for doubt to be created. It is suggested that the law adopts the definition above, to affirm MSF’s approach and allay the fears of the homeless.
The Need to Define Homelessness
It is recognised that destitute form a small proportion of the homeless population, who benefits under the Destitute Persons Act. In respect of the bigger subset of the homeless, the Act “seems out of step with the patterns of homelessness and homeless people’s needs in contemporary Singapore”.
Singapore law should define homelessness, differentiating between being homeless and destitute to ensure that suitable help applies. Homelessness legislation can be adopted from Part VII of the UK Housing Act 1996. Under s.175, a person is homeless if “he has no accommodation available for his occupation”. The person must be able to access the accommodation which must be reasonable to continue to occupy. Under the Act, a person can be homeless even if they do not sleep on the streets and live in temporary housing.
The legal framework for homelessness under the UK Housing Act 1996 seeks to serve an estimated 280,000 Britons, roughly one in two hundred are recorded homeless.There is an active duty placed on authorities to provide accommodation or assistance to the eligible homeless. There is an absolute duty to secure accommodation for individuals who are unintentionally homeless and in priority need, defined under s.189 and s.191. Coupled with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, if the eligible applicant is homeless or at risk of being homeless within 56 days, authorities have a duty to either prevent or provide relief through offering advice or finding them a new place to live.
Singapore may similarly adopt the above-mentioned definitions and statutory duties for the homeless. The Minister for Social and Family Development had previously stated that “MSF considers a person to be homeless if he does not have access to housing. This includes people who have no home. It also includes rough sleepers who have homes but face difficulty returning for various reasons such as serious hoarding, or conflict with family members or co-tenants”. While the MSF’s definition closely mirrors the UK’s, it should be written in law to provide individuals with the legal status of being homeless, to enforce support from different Government bodies and agencies. For example, lesser bureaucracy and lower thresholds when applying for aid, urgency to get them off the streets and into temporary homes while resolving their underlying issues. A statutory duty could also be placed on authorities to proactively advise and work to prevent homelessness, instead of relying on the homeless to voluntarily seek help or for them to sleep on the streets before authorities can identify and approach them.
The adoption of these duties ensures that the law can become the primary caretaker of the homeless, and not serve as the last resort available to them.
Legislating Exceptions to Joint Tenancy for the Homeless
Public Rental Housing may be the only viable avenue for the homeless persons to live off the streets. But the current Joint Singles Scheme (“JSS”) under the HDB Public Rental Housing Scheme (“PRHS”) is seen as a contributory factor to homelessness.
The PRHS offers heavily subsidised rental fees to low-income individuals that meet certain requirements. Under the JSS, two prospective single tenants, either known to each other or assigned, must apply together to rent a one-room flat. It does not allow single occupancy so as to “ensure prudent use of our limited land and fiscal resources”. This type of flats lack privacy and are often small, which may cause “quarrelling with co-tenants in HDB rental flats, due to incompatibility of personality and character”. These inter-tenant disputes were also highlighted in the LKYSPP study as a contributing factor to rough sleeping. The Government’s approach has been to mediate these disputes, set partition walls for more privacy between the co-tenants. If necessary, they will facilitate a change of co-tenants or allow for single tenancy in exceptional cases. Despite these efforts however, the fact remains that some are left with no choice but to sleep rough due to unresolved conflicts or inability to live with others.
It is suggested that the threshold of “reasonable to occupy” could play an important role in allowing an exception to allow for single occupancy in the PRHS. The test of reasonableness found in s.175 of the English Housing Act 1996 could be followed. This threshold ensures that the living conditions of the rough sleepers with co-tenant conflicts are properly considered. Concerns of rough sleepers should be taken seriously, including non-medically diagnosed cases. The law should be reviewed to accommodate an exception for single occupancy, to allow certain low-income individuals to live reasonably and peacefully.
Credit must be given to Singapore’s various welfare organisations and its compassionate citizens who readily offer their services to tackle homelessness. Transitional Shelters funded by MSF and run by Voluntary Welfare Organisations provide accommodation for up to six months, with less strict rules as compared to welfare homes as they can come and go freely. The staff help the homeless with their housing needs, offer life-skill training, and secure employment to prepare them for a long-term stable accommodation. As one of the transitional shelters put it, “teaching a man how to fish would feed him for a lifetime”. The Government also endorses the “Many Helping Hands Approach” in engaging community partners and tackling homelessness through a community-based approach. The MSF’s Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers Network (“PEERS”) established in 2019 has reached out to the homeless and provided help in many forms. PEERS has also established Safe, Sound Sleeping Places (“S3Ps”), relying on community partners such as various Churches and Mosques to provide sleeping, showering facilities and basic necessities such as food. Financial assistance programs by the Government such as ComCare coupled with affordable HDB Public Rental Housing has also helped many. It is inaccurate to say that the homeless in Singapore are neglected and devoid of any assistance.
Unfortunately, the law appears apathetic towards the homeless and needs to be brought up to date. The Destitute Persons Act can no longer serve as the only legal approach towards tackling homelessness. It lacks the precision to assist the destitute and does not reflect the practices of the MSF. Furthermore, there are no statutory powers to define and help the homeless in Singapore. While various other structural factors such as low wages remain unsolved and undiscussed in this article, it is hoped that changes in the law can encourage and bring relief to the homeless population. Our “hidden homeless” should no longer need to hide from nor feel neglected by the law.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Durham Asian Law Journal.
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