Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Importance of Creating a Caring Society to Solve the Issue of Homelessness


The Importance of Creating a Caring Society
to Solve the Issue of Homelessness
 Assoc Prof Ainullotfi bin Abdul Latif
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Skudai, Johor, and
Head of i-Bantu, Community Services Committee,
Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia.


The issue of homelessness was thrusted into the headlines earlier this year when directives were given to ban the feeding of homeless people in tourist-popular areas of the City of Kuala Lumpur. It was understood that the ban was to protect the image of the city from such an ugly scourge of the society. This provoked outrage from many sections of the society, especially those directly related to the problem, including volunteers and social activists and other concerned members of the society. A good outcome of it has been that the issue is now more widely discussed by the society and more deliberations and researches to understand the issue were conducted. This paper is an attempt to see the issue from the perspective of an activist, more than that of an academic.


How do we define homelessness? Many uninformed people, both on the streets and in gilded chambers, would see homeless people as associated with drunkenness, vagrancy, laziness and basically a social ill that should not be tolerated, and even a form of crime to be distanced from. However this does not reflect the hidden reality of the pertinent issues behind such problems. Amongst others, homelessness is generally understood as the state of not having shelter, or a regular private space for sleeping, washing, and otherwise conducting one’s day-to-day life  [Food Not Bombs, 2014].

Official statistics showed that in 2010 there were 1,646 homeless people in the whole country, with the bulk majority, 1,387, in the capital [Boo Su-Lynn, 2014; Rayna Rusenko, 2014]. Unofficially, the real number might be double or triple that. Contrary to popular believe most homeless people in the city, in the order of 90%, actually have jobs [Tan Su Lin, 2014], though these jobs may not provide them enough income to sustain their life in the city properly [Sharifah Mariam Alhabshi, 2002] and are locals, not foreigners. Surprisingly, in general they are literate, with some form of basic education.

Issues Behind Homelessness

There are many reasons that lead to homelessness, and understanding the basics real issues causing the problem is important in order come up with meaningful actions to address the problem. Equally important would be to suspend one’s judgements on the homeless, or to look at the issue in just some superficial perspectives.

Some of the related issues that needed to be comprehended as possible causes leading to homelessness include [Food Not Bombs, 2014]:
  • Low income – where the income does not par up with the financial requirements of living in a city, given the high costs of housing and food;
  • Unemployment/underemployment – the lack of enough employment opportunities, and the lack of financial backing in the event of retrenchment;
  • Lack of affordable housing – within range of employment, given the high property and rental costs;
  • Lack of affordable transportation – high costs of transportation to and from work should one prefer to live away from the city centre.
  • Domestic violence – the lack of shelters for victims of domestic violence forced women and children onto the streets for safety;
  • Labour exploitation – unregulated employment where employees are not given proper rights, such as no health benefits and injury compensation, late or unpaid wages, SOCSO protection etc.
  • Debt – affects a lot of homeless people, where income are mainly used to pay off debts, or debts causing them to be bankrupt;
  • Addiction of alcohol, drugs or even gambling – saps off whatever regular income they have;
  • Regional disparities/rural to urban migration – relocation cuts off the natural protection of family home and communal support, while having to face higher costs of living in the city.

Aside from these causal issues, other related issues need also to be considered [Food Not Bombs, 2014]:
  • Chronic long-term illness that cannot be cured such as asthma, arthritis and diabetes;
  • Mental health issues such as depression;
  • Physical, amental and developmental disabilities;
  • Ageing, with 20% above the age of 60 years, and the lack of social support for these people.

A Caring Society

In the nation’s strive to achieve Vision 2020 and create a society that is democratic, liberal and tolerant, caring, economically just and equitable, progressive and prosperous, and in full possession of an economy that is competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient, the fourth, seventh and eighth listed challenges are, respectively [Mahathir Mohamad, 1991]:
  • The fourth is the challenge of establishing a fully moral and ethical society, whose citizens are strong in religious and spiritual values and imbued with the highest of ethical standards;
  • The seventh challenge is the challenge of establishing a fully caring society and a caring culture, a social system in which society will come before self, in which the welfare of the people will revolve not around the state or the individual but around a strong and resilient family system;
  • The eighth is the challenge of ensuring an economically just society. This is a society in which there is a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation, in which there is full partnership in economic progress. Such a society cannot be in place so long as there is the identification of race with economic function, and the identification of economic backwardness with race.

These framework could provide some of the necessary thinking in developing some of the solutions to address the issue of homelessness. It should be noted that addressing these matters could not be done by one sector of the society alone, but should cover the three major sectors involved in the community, namely (Figure 1):
  • The government sector;
  • The business sector;
  • The volunteer sector, consisting of community activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Figure 1 Sectors involved in addressing community issues

Furthermore, the philosophy of a caring society must go beyond the microscopic perspective of actual individual actions towards another member of the society, but must permeate into the very purpose of existence of the community as a whole. This leads us to look into the creation of a society which is contented and at peace with itself, providing a level of satisfaction and happiness for its members, which could only be attained if the various components of life are fulfilled and addressed, i.e the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects (Figure 2). Any neglect of any of these aspects would certainly undermine the creation of a happy society.

Figure 2 Components of life

A caring society seeks to ensure that, together, the needs of an individual member of the society in all of these aspects are sufficiently fulfilled, and none are undermined or neglected in the pursuit of the others. A measure of the success or otherwise of a society must take into consideration how much of the needs of each of these aspects are fulfilled in a balanced manner.

A Holistic Approach

Most of what we see on the ground are actually mere symptoms of bigger causal issues normally hidden from view, and to just alleviate these problems as is would only provide a superficial treatment of the malaise. It is akin to providing pain-killer to a person suffering from a critical heart attack; it is useful to reduce the pain suffering, but more serious effort must be done to address the root of the problem. Homelessness in itself is only a reflection of bigger and broader issues in the society that need to be identified and addressed.

Noting from the causal issues of homelessness from earlier, one can categorise them into three levels (Figure 3):

(1)    Long-term, more global policy and planning issues;
(2)    Implementation and enforcement issues;
(3)    Responsive-type actions in dealing with the aftermath of the problems.

What is generally seen and felt are the last of these categories, but these are in fact mere consequences of discrepancies in the earlier two, and especially the first.

Figure 3 Levels of Issues

A caring philosophy must be imbued not only at the tail-end of the problem, but also must prevalent in the early stages.

A More Caring Policy and Planning

Some of the major causes of homelessness involves the availability of housing and the costs of transportation and food. These very much depend on the policies laid down by the authorities, especially in drawing out the long-term planning of cities and suburban areas. The expansion of cities purely based on the consideration of profits and economic gains, including uncontrolled real estate prices, certainly does not put the four human life needs mentioned above of the general population as a priority. Property prices would continually rise way beyond the reach of the ordinary people, and can only be afforded by a minute proportion of the population, the super-rich. A more caring philosophy in the planning should put the needs of the majority and the disadvantaged before the consideration of profit and pure economic gains.

Similar considerations need to be to overcome the problems relating to transportation. A city planning based on the requirements of private modes of transportation way above the development of a good, reliable and efficient public transportation system which is available and affordable to most would certainly contribute a lot to the issue of quality city dwelling, and homelessness. Again, the emphasis here is to start to pen everything with the human in mind, in a caring attitude, not just doing it for the physical and material benefits, or treating the people as mere tools for economic productivity.

Another requirement that can be considered in planning is the stemming of unbalanced flow of economic immigrants from rural and less-developed areas to the megacities. As long as the needy find it imperative for them to move from their original districts to bigger cities in search of better living conditions for their families, then the issue of providing for their needs in the cities would continue unabated. There is no reason why every economic development must be centralised in the cities, especially with better communication and transportation systems nowadays. Greater push must be done to enable the creation of more viable centres of economic activities outside the bigger cities, which would also necessitate the creation of better planned new townships (instead of the old, haphazardly growing cities) that would address all the four needs of human lives in a more balanced manner.

Of the three sectors, such massive undertaking can only be taken by the government sector, probably with the support of the business sector. However, the leaders and planners must be very clear as to what should drive the planning, is it pure profit, or is it vanity or should more emphasis be put into the balanced human life. Relevant laws and regulations should be enacted to ensure such are achieved.

A More Caring Implementation and Enforcement

As earlier ementioned, one very important myth to be bustered with regards to homelessness is that they are lazy, linked to crimes and put it upon themselves to be homeless. Once we are clear that the negative perceptions tied to the homeless are just not true, then our treatment of the issue and the people related to it should not be judgemental but seen in a more compassionate way. This change in perception should particularly be relevant to those executing programs and matters directly affecting the homeless. For those in the bureaucracy, these are individuals that they are dealing with, not just statistics and faceless names. They are also not small issues to be glossed over or swept under the carpet, especially in the face of the onslaught of “economic advancement” or “progress”, and especially not so that we would protect our “squeeky clean” image to the tourists.

The welfare agencies need to be better equipped to handle the variety of issues relating to homelessness, particularly in helping those affected by chronic illness, mental and psychological problems, ageing and also domestic violence. Our society must have a ready safety net to take care of such matters, so that they would not have to face such issues on their own in a helpless situation. A society which does not protect its weakest is a society heading towards certain doom.

Also, in matters involving work exploitation such as the deprivation of employment benefits, and late and unpaid wages, these disadvantaged people must be able to obtain ready legal assistance to fight for their rights, and their cases should not be bogged down in red-tape. Enforcement of the long arm of the law against the perpetrators of such exploitation must be firm and swift, and not be put back due to their status.

For Muslims, one of the ordained channels that should be available to assist the homeless is through the distribution of zakat and fitrah (tithe), which is rightfully theirs. Red-tapes and unrealistic conditions tied to the handing out of zakat monies must be done over, and zakat should be let to serve the role it was meant to do in Islam, not to be kept in the banks years after years. Compassionate considerations should prevail over legalistic and bureaucratic hurdles. Only then the true purpose of zakat would be attained.

Education is also an important means to impart the caring and compassionate attitude in facing the homelessness issue. Schools could be an effective medium to create better awareness of the issue, including educating school children of good practices to avoid being trapped into such conditions – in matters such as income management, debt avoidance, good social behaviour, as well as imbuing the feeling of empathy towards the disadvantaged. 

In this area of implementation, both the government and the business sectors have a lot of role to play, with the volunteer sector give a supportive role.

Caring Response to the Problem

When prevention fails and the problem still persists, as no amount of planning and tip-top implementation of programs would ensure an air-tight solution to the problem, then the necessary steps must be taken to alleviate the matter. The roles played by the respective organisations (NGOs) in helping the homeless, whether directly in providing food to them or in assisting them to obtain their legal, medical and social dues, are commendable. These organisations are staffed by concerned volunteers, and financed by the support of concerned community members.

Figure 4 Students trolling the night to distribute food for the homeless

Direct participation in such programs by members of the society, especially the youths, aside from alleviating the suffering of the homeless, have a secondary effect of creating a better awareness of the problems, and thus a more compassionate attitude towards the down-trodden and disadvantaged, instead of merely sneering at them negatively and blaming them squarely for their misfortune. This have an overall positive effect on the society’s well-being, creating individuals who would be better positioned to later serve in positions of policy-making and planning. More such programs should be encouraged at universities and schools and carried out with better planning, so that they would not be just one-off activities or just serve as window dressings. They could be included as part of extra-curricular activities of institutions of higher learning and even for trainees in the National Service programs.

More active involvements of the business sector should also be solicited, if not demanded, as par of their CSR activities. At present a number of corporations do provide funding to the NGOs involved in tackling the homeless issues, but they should also consider sending their staff to get directly involved on the ground. Furthermore, the business sector should ensure that they themselves are not involved in creating the problem by bad practices such a exploitation of their employees, non-compassionate treatment of human issues etc.

In providing for some of the basic needs of the homeless, the NGOs and volunteers should not be hinded or treated with disdain by those in authority, but should be assisted and facilitated wherever necessary. Any issues arising should be handled in a mutually agreeable manner and not dealt in a confrontationist mode, for these NGOs and volunteers are what gives the society its soul.


The issue of homelessness should be handled with more compassion in a caring society that we are to build, and any solution to the matter need to involve a more holistic approach right from the policy and planning, implementation and support. 


Boo Su-Lyn (2014). Homeless in the city - Falling through the cracks, Malay Mail Online, July 4 2014, 

Edmund Yap (2014). Homelessness is a Choice, Is It?,  Social Enterprise Malaysia,

Foods Not Bombs (2014). Homelessness in Malaysia - Policy Sheet,

Mahathir Mohamad (1991). “The Way Forward”, Prime Minister’s Office. 

Rayna Rusenko (2014). Homelessness in Malaysia – popularly misunderstood , The Malaysian Insider, 

Sharifah Mariam Alhabshi and Alifatul Kamilah Binti Abdul Manan (2002), Homelessness in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: A Case of Agenda Denial, International Journal of Social Science Tomorrow Vol. 1 No. 2.

Tan Su Lin (2014), 90 per cent of the homeless are Malaysians with jobs, Astro Awani,

The above paper was presented as an invited paper at "A Seminar on Homelessness: Nature, Causes, Implications and Solutions", University of Malaya Faculty of Business and Accountancy, 20 October 2014.

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