“Homeless in Singapore: Results from a nationwide street count”: Putting the “1,050 street homeless people” in context

Map illustrating the distribution of street homeless people in Singapore

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Publication: Ng Kok Hoe (2019). Homeless in Singapore. Results from a nationwide street count. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Ng’s (2019) excellent and policy-relevant research was characterised by robust data collection – using two different types of counts and involving social service agencies in the research – the creation of a base (figure) for future research and for regular counts longitudinally, as well as the pairing of the causes of homelessness with policy recommendations. Two limitations, nonetheless, should be flagged. The absence of: First, contextualisation of the 921 to 1,050 street homeless people in Singapore, especially in comparison to other developed countries or cities where, as mentioned in the publication, counts of homeless populations are part of regular policy activity; and second, substantive and empirical attention linked to the family and community networks of these individuals.

The top-level finding of the number of street homeless people – with the lower limit based on a single-night count and the upper limit based on the cumulative count – dominated headlines, even though the mobilisation of 480 volunteer fieldworkers from more than 20 non-government organisations deserves equal attention. That there is also strong statistical associations between both counts for the zonal figures and at the district level is significant too. Both the initial data and the data collection methodology are hence proofs that counts of street homeless people in Singapore should and can be regular features.

In addition, the causes of homelessness (in Singapore) are paired with potential policy recommendations. While extant literature has identified economic structural conditions, systemic barriers, and individual circumstances as the three main explanations for homelessness, Ng’s research posited that the three explanations in Singapore are insecure work and poverty, family relationship problems, and inadequate or inaccessible housing services (p. 45). In response, he suggests outreach services to connect the homeless to housing services (p. 46), increasing overnight shelters vis-à-vis shelter services (p. 46), legislative changes to HDB’s public rental housing scheme (p. 46) and the Destitute Persons Act (p. 47), as well as addressing the problem of low wages and insecure work (p. 47).

“Homelessness clearly illustrates the consequences when work does not bring about economic security and family support is not available. It makes a strong case for the role of public provision to ensure income security in old age. The prevalence of homelessness within public housing estates is also a stark reminder that homeownership is not within everyone’s reach” (p. 48).

Be that as it may, contextualising the 921 to 1,050 street homeless people (approximately 0.016 to 0.019 per cent of Singapore’s total population or 0.023 to 0.026 per cent of the total resident population) in the country would have added further value to the findings. While it is not yet feasible to track Singaporean trends over time, there could have been comparisons with other developed countries and cities (or city-states). This is especially relevant, given that the publication mentioned that counts of homeless populations are conducted frequently in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Among countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, less than one per cent of the population in the 29 reporting countries was reported as homeless, though definitions of homeless do vary. Some of these countries were able to report whether the proportions and absolute numbers of their homeless populations had increased or decreased over time, a practice which should create further impetus for Singapore to follow suit.

And given Singapore’s status as a city-state, comparisons with other metropolitan cities – where levels of homelessness are likely to be higher than less urbanised areas – may be more appropriate. In the county of Los Angeles (LA), California, where I am currently based and where homelessness is anecdotally more visible, it was reported earlier this year than despite government spending, there are now over 58,936 homeless people, a 12 per cent increase from last year. LA county also hosts the country’s largest outdoor-homeless population.

In other words, Ng’s study and methodology offer a basis for within-Singapore comparisons in the years to come, but in the interim cross-country and cross-city contrasts can be productive.

The second limitation relates to one of the three explanations for homelessness in Singapore: Family relationship problems. The present research does a good job of addressing the other two issues of insecure work and poverty as well as inadequate or inaccessible housing services. Therefore, a better understanding of the family and community networks within which street homeless people are embedded is needed. Knowing the important family and non-family individuals to whom they have access – from a social service perspective – can help improve programmes and services offered by agencies and their social workers.

This is especially pertinent, given that family conflict and break-up was the second-most cited reason for sleeping in public spaces (p. 37). Interviewees also reported family conflict and their unwillingness to inconvenience friends, and furthermore about 20 per cent of them had not spoken with family or friends in the past month (p. 41). Focusing on their social capital and social networks of supportive relationships are complementary to the broader aforementioned policy recommendations, and should not be construed as an expectation for the homeless in Singapore to be solely and individually responsible for their circumstances.

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