This is Homelessness, Truly: Homelessness in Singapore, and Why We Need to Do More

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard, but the effects are not equal. In a time when staying home is being legislated under the official COVID-19 regulations[1], what happens to people without a home? With social distancing-induced reduced capacity forcing homeless shelters to turn people away[2], the pandemic has brought the issue of homelessness in Singapore to its breaking point. However, the issue has existed long before the pandemic, and policies to tackle homelessness have only managed to reach a fraction of those experiencing homelessness. Singapore’s seemingly robust public housing system makes homelessness an even more vexing question. By looking at some of the policies that target homelessness through Dworkinian and Andersonian frameworks, we can better understand why the support given to homeless people in Singapore is inadequate, and what can be done to help them in a way that honours their needs and dignity as equal human beings.

Homelessness in Singapore

There is no existing official definition for homelessness in Singapore, but existing frameworks identify homelessness as a state of not having a stable place to live for a substantial amount of time. The closest definition of homelessness is the Destitute Persons Act. Under this Act, one definition of a destitute person is “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”[3].

In a landmark empirical study of homelessness in Singapore, the number of homeless people living on the streets was estimated to be between 921 and 1050 people[4]. The study focused on rough sleepers (i.e. someone who sleeps in public spaces), and also shows that a portion of rough sleepers have a home, but choose to sleep on the streets for a variety of reasons, from transport costs to frictions with those living with them. The issue of homelessness tends to be tackled by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), with the support of social service agencies and voluntary community groups in a partnership called the PEERS (Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers) Network, and additional support from other government agencies such as the Housing Development Board (HDB).[5] However, according to the MSF, they have helped approximately 300 homeless individuals, showing a large number of people unaccounted for.

Anti-welfarist policies: a Dworkinian state?

The Singapore government stresses personal responsibility in many of their policies, and those that tackle homelessness are no different. As far as possible, people are encouraged to help themselves before turning to the government for support, such as turning to friends and family first. Support from government and government-affiliated organisations tend to also focus on “underlying issues” in employment and relationships, and emphasise restoring family ties.[6] Help from governmental institutions tend to be a last resort; for example, Transitional Shelters that are funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and run by Voluntary Welfare Organisations are for individuals who have “exhausted all means of accommodation options”. [7] These policies highlight the prioritisation of personal responsibility as persons at risk of homelessness have a responsibility to seek out other alternatives before they are eligible for support.

This attention to personal responsibility is a highly Dworkinian stance on distributive justice, which attempts to separate choice from circumstance, taking care of those in bad situations, and rewarding a person’s responsible choices while letting irresponsible people face consequences.[8] In a small city-state like Singapore, this may seem like a good system given our limited resources, and emphasis on people being our main resource would motivate the desire to incentivise responsible, productive behaviour.

However, the adoption of a just Dworkinian distribution of housing leaves us with uncomfortable implications. Focusing on choice means leaving behind people who have made “bad choices” because they are seen as responsible for the consequences of those bad choices. However, people rarely choose to engage in irregular and low-paid livelihoods that cannot support paying for a home. Homeless persons who do have a house to their name often have personal or social reasons for not being able to stay there, such as abuse or familial tensions.[9] It may seem like they have “chosen” homelessness, but in reality, the difference between choice and circumstance is less than one might think – a complication that Dworkin himself recognises in his writing.[10]

The safety net that is provided as a last resort might also not seem comprehensive enough. The prevalent “many helping hands” approach places the government at the centre the PEERS Network, but the government-funded organisations in the Network primarily run Transitional Shelters and Welfare Homes, while other organisations focusing on homelessness are limited by lack of funding; this leaves a reality where there are “few hands” providing support to homeless persons.[11] The personal responsibility of finding alternatives to government support remains the default, but it is ironically the lack of alternatives that most likely put a person in the position of homelessness to begin with.

Reframing the question of housing: Anderson’s democratic equality

Looking to Elizabeth Anderson’s framework of democratic equality, we can begin to parse why the current policies on housing that focus on personal responsibility are inadequate. Anderson’s framework of distributive justice focalises equal and dignified opportunities for a person to fulfil their capabilities rather than whether they have an equal amount of assets.[12] Under the capabilities approach, housing is a precondition to fulfilling capabilities because stable housing is necessary for general well-being. As such, it should be an inalienable right that should be afforded to people in a dignified manner.[13]

Democratic equality necessitates a change in how housing is distributed and perceived. To some extent, the facilities set up to support the homeless in Singapore seem to be doing work that already focuses on the dignity of homeless persons, such as reconciliation and social work. For example, Welfare Homes aim to “improve [homeless people’s] physical and emotional well-being, and where possible, re-integrate them into the community” through the provision of care and rehabilitation[14]. These actions highlight a willingness to engage with homeless persons as people with complex needs that manifest through their housing situation. However, Welfare Homes are not a perfect solution. A focus on rehabilitation reinforces the government’s stance that homelessness is a result of personal problems and failures, rather than a complex interplay of circumstance and choice. [15] Furthermore, many older homeless people are also fearful of living in Welfare Homes as they restrict their freedom, and current legislation also allows authorities to commit homeless people to Welfare Homes involuntarily. By infringing on a person’s choice to participate or leave the Welfare Homes, the state does not respect these people’s autonomy and ability to choose.

Having stringent criteria that homeless persons must meet before they are eligible for support also forces these people to be judged according to the state’s ideals of what is responsible, and who is morally deserving of help. For example, a person leaving an abusive situation might be more eligible to receive help than a homeless person struggling with alcohol addiction due to many shelters having restrictions on alcohol consumption. This judgement is unfair as it creates a moral hierarchy that does not respect homeless persons’ inherent equality and moral worth.[16] This is also a paternalistic imposition of the state’s will, as stringent criteria that is often corroborated through invasive means to prevent abuse of the system signals a lack of trust from the state of people to accurately assess their situations and make use of resources available to them. The need for corroboration also forces homeless persons to give proof that they are in a dire situation with no other alternative so that they can receive help, placing them in a potentially humiliating position where their unfortunate circumstances can be seen as reflections of inadequacy.

One basic move towards better policies is simply to have an official definition of homelessness. As stated in Ng’s study, “definitions are acts of problem identification.”[17] Moving away from the Destitute Persons Act which serves to criminalise the grey area of homelessness towards an official more compassionate recognition of what it means to be homeless can lead to more constructive policies that are respectful of homeless persons.

Ng’s study on homelessness in Singapore also opens up questions on how communities determine who rightfully belongs.[18] In these pandemic times, regulations that close off important public community spaces are not the cause of hardship for homeless people – instead, they highlight problems of shared space and ownership that were already present before the regulations were necessary for community health. In reframing the question of just distribution of housing from one that is only concerned with egalitarian resource distribution to one that is concerned with equal and effective access to dignified homes, we can better generate truly egalitarian answers that respect people as equal human beings in society.

[1] Support for Homeless and Rough Sleepers during COVID-19. www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/PQ-on-support-for-homeless-and-rough-sleepers.aspx.

[2] F., Aldgra. “COVID-19: Shelters for the Homeless Hit Capacity as ‘Circuit Breaker’ Measures Took Effect in S’pore.” The Online Citizen, 13 Apr. 2020, www.onlinecitizenasia.com/2020/04/13/covid-19-shelters-for-the-homeless-hit-capacity-as-circuit-breaker-measures-took-effect-in-spore/.

[3] Destitute Persons Act (Cap 78, 2013 Rev Ed) s 2(1a)

[4] “Singapore’s Hidden Homeless: Insights from a Nationwide Street Count.” National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, 2019, lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/singapore’s-hidden-homeless-insights-from-a-nationwide-street-count.

[5] Admin. “A Community Effort to Help the Homeless and Rough Sleepers.” MSF Cares, 19 Dec. 2019, msfcaresblog.com/2019/12/19/a-community-effort-to-help-the-homeless-and-rough-sleepers/.

[6] Ng, Kok Hoe. 2019, p. 13, Homeless in Singapore: Results from a Nationwide Street Count.

[7] “Statistics on Shelters.” Ministry of Social and Family Development, 8 Jan. 2018, www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Statistics-on-shelters.aspx.

[8] “Justice, Insurance, and Luck.” Sovereign Virtue: the Theory and Practice of Equality, by Ronald M. Dworkin, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 323.

[9] Ng, Kok Hoe. 2019, p. 10, Homeless in Singapore: Results from a Nationwide Street Count.

[10] “Justice, Insurance, and Luck.” Sovereign Virtue: the Theory and Practice of Equality, by Ronald M. Dworkin, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 324.

[11] Tan, Harry, and Helen Forbes-Mewett. “Whose ‘Fault’ Is It? Becoming Homeless in Singapore.” Urban Studies, vol. 55, no. 16, 2018, p. 3592

[12] Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, Jan. 1999, p. 320., doi:10.1086/233897.

[13] Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, Jan. 1999, p. 320., doi:10.1086/233897.

[14] https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/PQ-on-support-for-homeless-and-rough-sleepers.aspx

[15] Tan, Harry, and Helen Forbes-Mewett. “Whose ‘Fault’ Is It? Becoming Homeless in Singapore.” Urban Studies, vol. 55, no. 16, 2018, p. 3584

[16] Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, Jan. 1999, p. 310., doi:10.1086/233897.

[17] Ng, Kok Hoe. 2019, p. 10, Homeless in Singapore: Results from a Nationwide Street Count.

[18] “Singapore’s Hidden Homeless: Insights from a Nationwide Street Count.” National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, 2019, lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/singapore’s-hidden-homeless-insights-from-a-nationwide-street-count.

Image taken by Jirka Matousek

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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