International Women's Day 2020

Liyana Dhamirah Was Once Homeless. But She Says It Isn’t The Problem: It’s Just A Symptom.

Her ordeal might have ended in 2010, but the issues she, and those like her, faced persist till today.

Liyana Dhamirah Was Once Homeless. But She Says It Isn’t The Problem: It’s Just A Symptom.
Liyana Dhamirah's first book details her experience with being homeless in one of the world's richest countries.Epigram Books

It’s hard to believe that homeless people exist in Singapore. How could there be? In a country that’s constantly lavished with praise and accolades for its brutal efficiency and fairytale-like rags to riches story, Singapore has always been upheld as a sterling example of a first-world country — one best encapsulated by the image of a towering, three-pronged hotel-casino crowned with a boat, and a Quality Of Life index that most other cities would kill for.

How then, could a problem as pervasive and unbecoming as homelessness, be one that plagues upstanding, exemplary Singapore? 

Liyana Dhamirah would know. When she was five-months pregnant with her third child, Dhamirah was forced to leave her in-laws’ home on Hari Raya in 2009. With nowhere else to go, she and her then-husband found themselves in a flimsy tent pitched in a quiet corner of Sembawang Park; it would become their home for the next three months.

She recounts her ordeal in her newest book, Homeless, where she details being raided by officials in the dead of night, describing them like ‘vultures on fallen prey’ as they reprimanded homeless campers, issued fines, and even confiscated tents and belongings, as well as the myriad challenges she faced while navigating Singapore’s sometimes complex welfare system.

Today, Dhamirah manages her own staffing company, Virtual Assistants Singapore, which provides companies with remotely-working executive assistants to help with their administrative tasks. It caters not just to businesses looking to outsource their busy work, but also to stay-at-home moms, people between jobs, and single parents: In essence, people who struggle to return to the traditional workforce.

Dhamirah’s experience with homelessness might have ended in 2010, but the issue persists today. Just last November, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy released study that included a nationwide count of the number of homeless people on the streets. The total number came up to around 1,000.

For her, homelessness isn’t a problem that you can slap a band aid on and call it a day. “It’s a process,” she says. “You need to address the root problem in a progressive way, if not, these families will just give up along the way.”

She talks about what needs to change, and why we need to stop viewing homelessness as a problem.

After you were forced to leave your in-laws home in 2009, how did you end up at Sembawang Park?

Back then, there was a lot of red tape that you have to go through to seek help. When you go to a social worker, they’ll always say: “Go back to your family. You have a registered address on your IC — why don’t you go back?”

As much as possible, these social workers want beneficiaries to find a solution for themselves. But what sane person would want to go live on a beach? Homeless people are at their wits end. That’s their last resort.

What was the hardest part about being homeless?

There would often be random raids by the authorities, and they would just chase everyone out. And that’s how the problem was settled back then — that’s how they dealt with homelessness! 

And I felt that it was inhumane. Because these people are already going through so much, and then you have to go through this as well.  Back then, I was angry because I experienced it first hand. But coming back and seeing others still being raided today… It makes me even angrier. There’s a sense of injustice. That’s why I want Singaporeans to know that this exists, and that it’s inhumane to treat another human like this.

The things that happen in the book might be my past, but the issues are still real and present for other people today.

Most people would assume that there are many avenues for homeless people to seek help in Singapore.

The government does have things like ComCare lines, assistance programmes — there are a lot of avenues of help. But many people might not have the resources to reach out. Or they might not even be aware of them. So if someone is in need of help, they’ll have to do their own research and look for their own solutions: but not everyone has these resources, and some people just don’t know how to reach out. And the approach tends to be very ‘one size fits all’: right now, if someone goes to a social service officer, the first thing they tell you is ‘get a job’ — I was told that as well.

That’s why I do befriender services today, where I accompany people who are homeless or struggling to social services meetings, and I tell them what help is available. 

Has Singapore’s view and approach toward homelessness changed in the last ten years?

There’s been a lot of work done in the last five years, because more people are talking about the issue openly. In 2017, [social work advocacy group] SW101 published a survey on 180 people who were found sleeping on the streets. And you have books like Teo You Yenn’s This Is What Inequality Looks Like — all these things contribute to the conversation, and because of that, people can’t ignore the issue of homelessness anymore. They can’t be in denial. 

When I was at Sembawang Park, I met other women who were going through the same thing, women who were homeless like me. And sometime in 2013, when I was setting up Virtual Assistants Singapore, I realised that people still weren’t acknowledging the fact that we have homeless people in Singapore. So I wanted to bring some awareness to this group, rather than just keep mum about my own experiences.

What else do you think can be done?

Honestly, we need to talk more about it. Through conversations we can find solutions. Homelessness is a symptom, and not the actual problem. Now, there are also temporary solutions like Interim Rental Housing, but it’s not helpful in the long run, because homeless families need a long time to get out of that rut and become self-sustaining.

There are a lot of people who are struggling to make ends meet. The lucky ones get put up in cheap rental flats, but there’s still day-to-day life going on. A lot of these issues, like homelessness, stems from personal problems.

You can’t give people a one-off handout — in this case, interim housing — and leave them to it. You need to address these issues in a progressive manner, if not, these families will just give up along the way. It’s not something that can be fixed overnight, and you can’t put a bandaid on it. It’s a process.

This story is part of A Magazine’s feature on women of note for International Women’s Day.

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